What’s the point of political leaflets, anyway? Many voters in target seats will be asking that very question on an almost daily basis, as they shovel the latest snowdrifts of election literature into their recycling bin. We have social media, party election broadcasts and phone banks to reach voters. Who needs leaflets?
There is a (I believe only half-serious) ‘test’ that some Liberal Democrat campaigners apply to the amount of information they think it is possible for a voter to absorb from a leaflet they’re carrying from the letterbox to the bin. Given the parties keep sending them, particularly in those marginal seats where it’s just not clear where the result is going to go, it’s worth having a look at what they think is going to appeal to voters as they trudge once more to the bin.
I’ve been asking voters all over the country to send me the election literature that comes through their letterbox over the past few weeks, and have been poring over the messages from the three main parties to find out what their version of passing the bin test would look like. Here are the main takeaways.
Labour candidates find Brexit awkward, and Corbyn even more so
A number of Labour leaflets just don’t mention Brexit at all, which mirrors their national campaign aim to avoid the topic as much as possible. Leave-voting seats in particular tend to avoid the issue, or gloss over it as quickly as possible with a few lines about ‘ending the Brexit division’:
Bishop Auckland (Labour majority 502)
Copeland (Tory majority 1,695)
Barrow and Furness (currently Independent ex-Labour, majority 209).
Boston and Skegness (Tory majority 16,572)
Of course, in very Remain-heavy seats, the leaflets are rather different:
Ealing Central and Acton (Labour majority 13,807)
But the thing that unites them is that hardly any of them mention or feature Jeremy Corbyn. This doesn’t happen unless you believe your leader is a drag on your campaign. The Liberal Democrats may have made the mistake of presuming that voters really, really like Jo Swinson, as she is all over their leaflets, even now at the end of the campaign when it has become clear that she’s not the big draw her party thought she was:
And Conservative candidates are similarly keen to produce pictures of themselves with Boris Johnson, as well as majoring on the need to get Brexit done.
Maidstone and The Weald (Tory majority 17,704)
Sevenoaks (Tory majority 21,917)
Aldershot (Tory majority 11,478)
Bournemouth West (Tory majority 12,711)
…as well as leaflets just with Jeremy Corbyn’s face on them:
Crewe and Nantwich (Labour majority 48)
The Liberal Democrats still really, really like leaflets
There’s a note of despair in many of the messages I’ve received from voters in Lib Dem target seats, as every day they seem to come home to yet more paper littering the hallway. In some of the constituencies that they’re hoping to win back, the bombardment looks a bit overly-keen. Take these leaflets sent to a voter in Southport (Tory majority 2,914), which the Lib Dems held until 2017 when long-serving MP John Pugh stood down. It is currently Conservative. Here are the leaflets from the new candidate, John Wright, which include a letter from Pugh endorsing him as someone who isn’t a ‘career politician’, and – my personal favourite – a magazine all about John Wright, which even has a section called ‘A Southport Love Affair’:
Clearly Southport voters keep their bins very, very far away from their letterboxes.
In fact, the Lib Dems love leaflets so much that in Tory/Lib Dem marginals, their opponents are trying to pretend that their literature is from Jo Swinson’s party too. Take this leaflet from Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park (Tory majority 45), where he has used Labour and Lib Dem colours to attract the attention of voters not normally disposed to voting Conservative:
(The voter who sent this in seemed pretty miffed that Goldsmith was pretending to be sending a Labour or Lib Dem leaflet, but presumably the bin test still applies, no matter how annoyed you are).
Forget fake news and have a fake newspaper
These aren’t new either, and while some are quite obviously party election material, others are rather more subtle, like this Conservative publication in Truro and Falmouth (Tory majority 3,792):
Here’s yet another Lib Dem one, from Richmond Park.
Unusually, this Lib Dem ‘newspaper’ doesn’t feature Jo Swinson at all, despite her face being plastered over pretty much everything else that her party has been able to get near.
Trust is a big issue
One of the highest profile battles of this election has been in Dominic Raab’s seat, where the Lib Dems have high hopes of unseating the Foreign Secretary. The already febrile atmosphere has been ignited by the row between Raab and the parents of Harry Dunn, who was killed in a motorcycle crash which led to the suspect, Anne Sacoolas, leaving for the USA under diplomatic immunity. The strongest leaflets doing the rounds in Esher and Walton (Tory majority 23,298) come from Kyle Taylor, who is running as an independent candidate:
The (plentiful) Lib Dem leaflets have turned on his character in some places, with the one below describing him as ‘unsympathetic’, ‘unfair’ and ‘unwilling’:
But they’re also keen to talk about trust in the Tories more widely (including in fake handwritten letters):
The NHS is a big deal
The Lib Dems are mere amateurs when it comes to asking voters whether they really trust the Tories, particularly with the NHS, though. Here’s a leaflet from Catherine West, Labour incumbent in Hornsey and Wood Green (Labour majority 30,738):
Let’s take a closer look at that bottom fold:
It contains the shorthand threat which Labour has been using over the past few months about ‘selling the NHS to Trump’, which of course isn’t an accurate characterisation of the debate about a future US/UK trade deal. But it sounds scary on a leaflet.
Other Labour candidates mention the Trump threat in their literature, including David Stokes in Bournemouth West (Tory majority 12,711). In his leaflet, he writes: ‘The Tories have been cutting NHS funding for the past decade, and now Boris Johnson’s planned deal with Donald Trump could cost the NHS £500 million extra a week in medicine and drug costs.’:
In East Devon (Tory majority 8,036), the candidate includes a picture of an ‘NHS not for sale’ poster:
As you’d expect, given it is a key part of the Labour air war, most Labour candidates talk about the health service in one way or another in the majority of their leaflets. Many use an element clearly offered by the central party called ‘My pledges to you’, which tends to include at least one promise regarding the local hospital or the national party’s funding plans. In Southport, Labour candidate Liz Savage lists ‘Fight for our hospital’ as her top pledge, adding ‘Labour built the NHS and will restore it after years of decline’. She also has a special NHS-focused leaflet:
It’s incorrect to say that the Tories are avoiding talking about the NHS in their local leaflets, even though they’d rather not go on about it too much at a national level:
Finally, one of the lessons to take is that political leaflet design is not a particularly fine art, unless you are Labour in Guildford, who may not win the seat (currently an ex-Tory independent majority of 17,040), but have designed the best leaflet of all: