“How could I make a decision? I didn’t receive any leaflets”
That seemed to be a common complaint from the 2013 County Council Elections. We’ve conducted a string of interviews for local radio where many voters seemed to feel they didn’t see an election.
Well if you didn’t hear from the parties it’s because your vote doesn’t matter.
In local elections under First Past the Post there are two kinds of voter: those in safe wards, that parties can take for granted, and those in marginal wards that can tip the balance. A handful of addresses in a handful of wards can mean the difference between victory and defeat, and those golden voters can expect leaflets en masse, door knocking, phone calls – the full monty of election campaigning.
So fresh from an interview for BBC Oxfordshire we thought we see what this meant for leaflets – and voters – in one county.
The Conservatives lost control of Oxfordshire Council – but where was this battle fought? Well it wasn’t in the Conservative heartlands in east and west (you can add the north of the county to the list with the exception of Banbury). It wasn’t fought in the Labour strongholds in the City of Oxford. And the battleground wasn’t the handful of Lib Dem bastions in commuter towns around the city.
297,000 voters were unlucky enough to live in these safe wards – that’s 59% of the total electorate.
If you wanted to see leaflets then the centre of Oxford was the place to be – a battleground heavily contested by the centre left. Lib Dems, Labour and Greens out in force – and lots of competition means lots of literature. Banbury saw leaflets galore as it went from blue to red, and several wards bordering Oxford tightly contested between Lib Dems and Conservatives wouldn’t have been short of a few copies of Focus. Some 204,000 golden voters in Oxfordshire’s marginals were getting all the attention.
Just take a look over on Election leaflets to see the difference. This site has been crowdsourcing the material that’s been landing on our mats for years. And it paints a compelling picture of the two kinds of elections voters see in this country.
And it’s as much quality as quantity. There are the full colour glossies received by wards in contention and the grim risographed efforts of paper candidates. And most tellingly of all there are the missing leaflets from parties that aren’t prepared to engage with potential supporters in no-go areas – or even their own voters in their safe wards.
Pop in a postcode for central Oxford and you’ll be spoiled for choice. Check out a postcode for the Eastern fringe of the county, and you’ll be lucky to see anything.
Don’t get us wrong, this behaviour is entirely logical. With limited resources parties will put all their effort in the handful of places where it might make a difference.
But that’s the logic of First Past the Post. All voters deserve to be part of a debate on the future of their community – but that debate isn’t happening in most of Oxfordshire – or indeed in most of the country.
Fair votes for local elections in Scotland have meant the parties can’t get away from engaging with their electorate because all votes matter. It isn’t possible to deem any ward as ‘in the bag’. It means voters are on the receiving end of more debate, and dare we say it, more leaflets.
Voters in Oxfordshire deserve the same deal.