The growing efficacy of telephone political canvassing at the 2005 and 2010 British general elections

Charles Pattie

University of Sheffield

Ron Johnston

University of Bristol


Constituency campaigning presents British political parties with a dilemma. On the one hand, local campaigns yield results. The more effective the local battle, the greater the reward in terms of votes won in a seat (Johnston 1986; Pattie et al. 1994; Denver & Hands 1997; Pattie & Johnston 2003a; Denver et al. 2004; Karp et al. 2007). But on the other hand, grass-roots parties are in decline, with falling membership, fewer activists among the members, and fewer locally generated resources to mount effective local campaigns (Fisher 2000; Johnston & Pattie 2008). So how are parties to fight a strong campaign when local resources are limited and diminishing? Two developments seem to offer a solution. First, constituency campaigns have been ‘nationalised’ in recent elections (Fisher & Denver 2008). No longer the preserve of local enthusiasts alone, they are now increasingly professionalised, coordinated and controlled by the national parties as part of their more general campaign strategies. National resources may in part compensate for local deficiencies. Second, and partially linked to this, changing communication technologies increase the repertoire of the local campaign. Whereas it was previously dominated by printed leaflets and by the face-to-face interactions of canvassing and local meetings, the development of (inter alia) telephone canvassing methods has allowed parties to centralise voter contact efforts by placing them (at least in part) in the hands of commercially operated telephone banks.