5 Writing 5 Writing

Politics on paper

It is in its documents that the electoral campaign is made visible, in and through which its practices are constituted and articulated with one another. When the Conservative Party in Dumfries and Galloway set out to recover the electoral presence it had lost in the general election of 1997, it did so on paper. Building toward both Scottish Parliament and local council elections to be held in early May 2003, a core campaign team met every Monday morning from the beginning of January in the Party’s local offices. It worked to a standard agenda, which directed the attention of participants to different aspects of the campaign. Its principal instruments were documents – the questionnaire, the letter, the press release, the leaflet and the plan – and they determined its principal activities.

As the election approached, the letters pages of local newspapers became ‘a discursive battleground for rival activists’. The party’s Local Opinion Survey, meanwhile, distributed by post, sought the views of householders on a range of local issues, and asked about their voting intentions. Its main purpose was to identify supporters, actual or potential, who then became the focus of more intensive target letters as polling day approached.

If the primary purpose of field work [canvassing] is to identify a campaign’s supporting voters and getting them to the polls on Election Day, then the primary artifact of field work is the list.

Betsy Super, Everyday Party Politics, 2009

A leaflet pushed through every door made the party present in voters’ homes, gave evidence of its local existence and activity. Its design and presentation testified – at least to party organizers – to their and their party’s professionalism. And its content worked to make connections between local issues and concerns, the national organization and the forthcoming elections: it effectively linked a person (the candidate) to a place (the ward or constituency) and to a party (the Conservatives). It served as a useful physical prop, too, in the doorstep encounter, converting the always potentially agonistic relationship into one of gift-giving: ‘we may or may not want to argue, but let me give you this leaflet in case you want to give me your vote’.

Back in the office, a spreadsheet, the Campaign Plan seen and used by the strategists alone, set a schedule of what was to be deployed when, bringing different elements of campaign into relation with each other. So it was in this ‘chain of documents’ that the campaign was made real, through which it became a tractable thing capable of being talked about and acted upon.

The production of these materials eventually monopolised the work of Conservative activists, who became enchanted by the possibilities of using documents and paperwork as technologies. As a consequence, a whole series of small, quasi-bureaucratic events and practices became imbued with significance greater than the sum of them as individual events (parts) to bring a new whole into view: the Conservative Party campaign.

Alexander Smith, Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives, 2011

This flyer begins as a digital file stored on a server paid for by Labour Party Headquarters. As such, it is laden with potential: it lacks local geographic markers such as the name of a constituency or a candidate. It can be for anyone, as long as they accept the Labour branding that already codes the file. The template is accessed by activists from all over the country, accessible to the broadband infrastructure lacing (much of) the countryside. Via a web portal, the template is further coded with the particulars of the local election, such as the issues identified by the local campaign as potentially meaningful to voters. The flyer-to-be thus mediates between the central and local campaigns, helping to produce a simultaneously central and local multiplicity of Labours all across the country. The template is then sent back to Labour HQ, along with a transfer of funds, which fuel the printers that materialize the flyer in its paper form. These then wing their way to the local constituency.

The temporary coming-together of volunteer, flyer and voter on the doorstep itself enables another assemblage to come into being: a massive database with hyper-local granularity. Each conversation… includes four questions… The results of these questions are linked with the address and feedback to the national party… and the local party. The resulting databases produce a virtual electorate, one that is knowable and which enables electoral tactics to be produced. The collective materialized trace of all these conversations is itself an object that enters into assemblage with the campaigns, enabling political action by campaign organizers, both tactically (in terms of where to geographically focus attention) and strategically (in terms of messaging).

Sam Page and Jason Dittmer, ‘Assembling Political Parties’, 2015

The story of the Conservative campaign in Dumfries and Galloway is drawn from Alexander Smith (2011) Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives: banal activism, electioneering and the politics of irrelevance, Manchester: Manchester UP; successive quotations are from pp 31, 57 and 132

Betsy Super’s remark on the field work list is from her Everyday Party Politics, op cit, p 115and the analysis of the Labour flyer from Sam Page and Jason Dittmer (2015) ‘Assembling Political Parties’, Geography Compass 9 (5) 251–261; the quotations are from pp 256-7 and 258