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Leaders, likeability, and leaflets: Do parties recognise the electoral liability of their leader?

By Caitlin Milazzo

A few weeks ago word spread that Ed Miliband’s face would hardly feature in Labour’s election campaign leaflets after Guido Fawkes reported the party had allocated just 45 minutes for its 257 MPs to have a photo taken with their leader. David Cameron inevitably claimed Miliband was so unpopular Labour did not expect many to turn up. That is certainly possible. While recent polls show Miliband’s image is improving, his approval rating has long lagged behind Cameron’s, even amongst his own supporters. As of March 2015, 40 per cent of Labour supporters indicated they were dissatisfied with how Miliband was performing as leader, while less than 20 per cent of Conservative supporters said the same of Cameron.

Time will tell how far Labour will avoid featuring Miliband on its campaign materials. But we can plausibly predict what is likely to happen on the basis of the parties’ behaviour in 2010.

The situation at the last election was actually not so different to the one we see today.  The British Election Study showed that while roughly a third of those asked indicated they disliked Cameron, half expressed dislike for Labour’s then-leader Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg fell between the two, with slightly more than two-fifths saying they disliked him.

Electionleafets.org has been collecting election leaflets since 2009. Using this fantastic resource, we compiled a dataset of more than 4,000 leaflets from 515 constituencies disseminated by parties in the run-up to the 2010 general election. Nearly 75 per cent of these belonged to the Conservatives, Labour, or the Liberal Democrats and the leaflets were distributed roughly evenly across the three parties. We coded each leaflet based on a number of dimensions, including the issues covered, the nature of the message, and the types of images used.

caitlin graph

If we assume that parties have a good understanding of the electoral limitations of their leader, then we would expect that Brown’s image would have featured less often in Labour’s leaflets than Cameron’s or Clegg’s image in their respective parties’ literature. And that was the case. Of the nearly 1,000 Conservative leaflets included in our dataset, two-thirds featured an image of Cameron. That is a stark contrast to what we saw in the nearly 1,000 Labour leaflets, of which only one in ten featured an image of Brown. And, as we saw with the popularity figures, Nick Clegg fell in between the two parties; of the 1,100 Liberal Democrat leaflets included in our dataset, slightly more than half featured an image of its leader.

The evidence from 2010 suggests that parties do take into account the likeability (or lack thereof) of their leader when designing election leaflets. If we look ahead to 2015, it would be quite reasonable to assume that Miliband will indeed feature less prominently than Cameron on his party’s leaflets. However, it is also reasonable to assume that we will see far less of Nick Clegg in 2015 than we did in 2010. In March 2010, only a quarter of the public was dissatisfied with Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats. By March of this year, that number had more than doubled.

Of course, not depicting your leader in your own campaign literature can only mitigate the problem. Despite doing its best to distance itself from Brown, Labour went on to a crushing defeat in 2010.

You can help us explore how this plays out in 2015 by uploading your election leaflets to Electionleaflets.org. Click the link and upload your leaflets today!

Caitlin Milazzo is Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. The British Election Leaflet Project is a collaborative effort with Jesse Hammond (University of California, Davis). Research assistance is provided by Joshua Townsley (University of Nottingham). The project is supported by the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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