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Published: 15 November 2019

CBE UK Election Watch 3: Why don’t the party leaders just stay at home?

I’m back, having survived the first week of campaigning and constructing my very own post-it note countdown to Polling Day. The question for this week’s blog is why do party leaders bother going around the country?

Why don’t the party leaders just stay at home?

I’m back, having survived the first week of campaigning and constructing my very own post-it note countdown to Polling Day. As the nights are drawing in and the weather gets colder, the temptation of a comfy sofa and a cup of tea is a distant thought for the party leaders who are currently haring about the country, chasing photo opportunities and occasionally wearing high vis jackets. The visits they are making are all over the place – photos circulated on social media, live links on rolling news channels and multiple photos in the press. The question for this week’s blog is why do party leaders bother going around the country?

There are plenty of different ways in which we can refer to this progress that leaders around the country during an election campaign – most commonly as leader visits or the campaign trail. This is not a new phenomenon in British politics of course – visits date back to the days prior to the mass media, when party leaders needed to physically interact with voters. Over recent decades, they have emerged as one of the most visible characteristics of election campaigning.

Today’s campaign trail is hyper-strategised, largely well-planned, and followed by a media retinue. It represents an important link between the air wars (the part of the campaign conducted via the media) and the ground wars (the campaign going on in individual constituencies). I’ve been researching the campaign trail since the 2010 general election, so I’ve now got quite a bit of data on where the leaders go and why. I’ve also found some evidence that the visits that party leaders make during the campaign can impact on the way that people vote. In 2010, for example, where David Cameron and Nick Clegg visited, their parties performed better than in places where they did not. Theresa May was quite effective in taking votes away from Labour where she visited in 2017, although that didn’t mean the Conservatives performed any better. The results are pretty mixed and dependent on the types of seats visited and the national political context of the time. But more on that in the next few weeks. Let’s briefly consider the ‘black box’ of the campaign trail – how exactly does a party leader popping up in your local constituency affect the way people vote?

This is an element of the literature which is not well-understood, both in the UK and in the more international studies looking at the campaign trail. I have a hunch though that the impact depends on who the party leaders are interacting with when they visit. If the leader is engaging with local activists, then the likelihood is that the leader enthuses them, and they therefore campaign harder, improving the party’s performance. If they are holding large-scale, public meetings, then their interactions with voters may convert a few, who in turn spread the message to their social networks.

So what can we tell about the 2019 campaign trail so far? Something that is clearly emerging is differences in who the leaders are interacting with. Corbyn in particular is holding rallies for his supporters, with four held in the last two days alone. The advantage of these sort of interactions is that (apart from the odd heckle in Dundee), the audience is largely on your side. Corbyn has also been doing quite a few informal walkabouts and participating in local canvassing – he is talking to more people, more frequently. Johnson is being more remote, with only the odd supporter ally here and there. He is spending more of his time in very heavily themed visits – visiting schools and reading to children, ‘working’ in a tea factory and mopping up a soggy Specsavers in Matlock. His informal interactions with the public have been limited and he has also been heckled. Surprisingly, for a leader who was spoken about as being as real campaigning asset during the Conservative leadership contest, his campaign trail so far has a remarkable amount in common with Theresa May in 2017. Next week, more on the campaign trail – what can the constituencies being visited tell us about the electoral ambitions of the parties?