So far, I’ve looked at how all those “Battle Buses”, and groups dispatched from London by train, could have pushed the Tories’ campaigns in several marginal seats into dubious territory, especially when the promise of inducements was added in. But that is not the end of it, not by any means - there is also the party’s direct mailing operation, which once more has not merely been admitted, but boasted about after the event.
The problem with mailshots is not the act of doing them, but the customising of letters which makes them only applicable to one particular constituency - at which point they arguably become local to that campaign and should be declared as part of the local spending, subject to appropriate spending limits. And the Tories have not declared those letters as local spending, no matter how high the level of customisation.
Here, once more, I am indebted to the Telegraph’s Tim Ross and his book “Why The Tories Won: The Inside Story of the 2015 Election”, which boasts of how wonderful The Blue Team was at customising mailshots and thereby leaves it open to charges that it was abusing local spending limits in a significant number of constituencies. Two paragraphs from that book tell you how the apparent abuse took place.
“During the course of the campaign, the Tories sent out millions of pieces of direct mail, and were, in the words of one leading Conservative, ‘the largest direct-mailing organisation in the country’. ‘For a long time before the campaign, we were the nation’s single biggest user of direct mail, running more sophisticated direct mail than any other organisation. We had more bespoke, detailed, specific literature to your individual concerns than anybody else’, a senior campaign insider says”. And there was more.
“The Tories’ central campaign directors - and the VoteSource system - knew the voters’ individual foibles in each individual target seat as well as any local campaign team or any candidate could have done … As for Labour, Tory insiders believe Ed Miliband’s strategists spent £1 million a day on their own direct-mail operation towards the end of the campaign. But instead of tailoring it and targeting it at floating voters who cared, ‘They sent generic leaflets about the NHS, to everyone. It was the most useless waste of money you could imagine”. So useless that there was no question over its legitimacy, though.
As soon as the letters mention specific constituencies, they have arguably crossed the line from national to local spend, and should be declared as part of the latter. Ross’ book not only openly admits that this was done, but also asserts that the whole operation sent out “millions of pieces of direct mail”. On top of that, it appears that only those constituencies considered as marginal were targeted - tens, rather than hundreds of them.
Do the math: a million pieces of direct mail sent to just 50 constituencies gives 20,000 per constituency. To generate one of those and post it out is going to come in at well over a quid a pop. If those letters become part of local spend, every Tory candidate standing in one of those seats has bust their budget by thousands of pounds. End of story.
That is why the Tories are sweating over the status of their direct mailing operation.