Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A family-oriented approach

It is easy to think of campaigning only taking place at the macro level, national strategy, party leaders, party websites etc are huge parts of a campaign and often taken as an indication of the nature of modern campaigning and any individual party (and so their candidates) strategy. But in many campaigns it is the micro level, the constituency, that is actually important and there are various dynamics at play here that can determine victory or defeat independent of the bigger picture. This is very true within the by-elections currently taking place in Malaysia, here the tactics are ones which have a different approach but we can learn much from them.

The governing party Barisan Nasional (BN) is playing down the notion of the by-elections being a referendum on its performance but is campaigning on a truth platform - basically they are holding meetings locally and saying yes there are problems, yes there is a lot of 'pain' around, but we can put it right.

But this is not a big national campaign but a very local approach. Their candidates are indigenous to each constituency and their strategy is "We will go down to the grassroots, meet the people and explain to them, why they need to vote for BN this time around, especially so because the constituency was neglected for almost a year after an independent candidate who later joined PKR, had won the seat". So their argument is similar to many parties - we are best for the job nationally - while also promoting constituency service locally.

How are they getting this message out? Gerakan President Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon says the party will organise small family gatherings to meet the people and listen to their views. These views will then be collected and used to determine the key solutions required for the area. Perhaps this reflects one of two things; either a more market-oriented approach as per the Lees-Marshment model; or a more organic bottom-up approach to politics that is consistent with smaller constituencies and MPs and candidates having a strong link to a local community. Of course this approach cannot reach everyone but any single family meeting may well be a talking point among the wider population of the constituency so not only serving a data collection function but also building a positive impression of the party.

Few MPs in the UK seem to adopt a localised approach, usually only those in marginal seats or those with a particularly proactive media strategy; perhaps this is changing or will change if the Internet offers MPs an easy way to reach a wider cross-section of the community than their mailbag or email can alone (a tactic that does not work in a Malay context). Perhaps if more constituencies are seen to be volatile this will also drive campaigns local, but largely, in the UK, even by-elections seem to be predominantly national affairs; but is this local, family-oriented approach more appropriate both for making a campaign relevant as well as understanding your electorate?

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