The complexity of the upcoming election looks set to make vote distribution central to the outcome. In other words, parties’ strengths in Westminster will be decided not just by how many votes they get but also where in the UK those votes are actually cast. This in turn means that the distribution of finite party resources during the election campaign could have a decisive impact. Recent research has shown that effective local campaigning can have a measurable impact on the result in a constituency, which also means that getting the right resources in the right places can be vital.
In the abstract then (as illustrated in Figure 1), we would assume that a party would want financial resources going to their most marginal constituencies, either those that they are seeking to take or seeking to defend. In contrast, there would be little value in a major share of financial resources going to safe seats, whether they are held by the party or by their opponents.
Things do not work out like this in real life, however. This is because political geography and some of the incentives for giving to constituency parties undermine this theoretical ideal. In the case of the Conservatives, for example, one major problem is that their richer local associations tend to be in wealthier areas of the country, which also happen to have the safest Conservative seats. Labour suffers from a different structural problem, due to the party’s historic links with the Trade Union movement. The challenge here is that the Trade Unions actually have two distinct and often contradictory incentives. They clearly want a Labour government (which creates incentives for giving donations to the marginal constituencies needed to construct a Labour majority), but they also want long-serving MPs supportive of the trade union movement (creating incentives for giving donations to Labour MPs and candidates in safe seats).
So given these institutional factors, it seems worth asking how the parties are actually doing at getting resources to where they are needed. By combining data from the Democratic Dashboard project, which includes information on political donations given to every constituency in 2014, with Pippa Norris’s 2010 constituency results database, it is possible to look at the relationship between total donations and marginality.
The graphs below show the three major parties in turn.
These graphs lead to three observations. First, and most obviously, constituencies across the UK seem to have access to a huge range of financial resources. There are some really big outliers, such as the Conservative Party in Watford, which received more than £234k in donations in 2014 or the Labour Party in Pendle that got £241k (the Democratic Dashboard classifies both of these seats as ultra-marginal, so it is not entirely surprising). In contrast, no donations were declared by any of the three major parties in 211 constituencies in the UK. Second, it is interesting to note that the distribution of the data points in the graph may reflect political circumstances. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of the Liberal Democrats, where the vast majority of constituencies with access to greater resources seem to be seats that the Lib Dems already hold with majorities of less the 12,000 votes. Given the Liberal Democrats current national poll ratings, this might reflect a very efficient distribution of resources, offering the party the best possible chance of constructing a fortress in the seats it currently holds.
The final point relates to the statistical relationship between seat marginality and the donations given to political parties. In the case of all three parties, there is a statistically significant negative correlation between the marginality of the seat and the donations a constituency party receives, as we would expect. However, it is notable that Labour (r=-0.203, p ≤ 0.001) has a slightly higher correlation than the Conservatives (r=-0.197, p ≤ 0.001). This would seem to indicate that Labour is distributing its resources slightly more efficiently than the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats correlation is higher still (r=-0.294, p ≤ 0.001). This is likely a function of the Liberal Democrats having virtually no presence in some constituencies, either in terms of votes or donations. But the shape of the Liberal Democrat graph points towards a fairly efficient distribution of resources, which could prove to be important on Election Day.
There are some big caveats to these graphs. The donations data is from 2014. Much might have changed in the first few months of 2015, with political givers becoming more aware of the key election battlegrounds. It should also be noted that this dataset is based on donations, not spending. So a safe seat with lots of resources might choose to spend its money hiring a mini-bus to allow its party members to deliver leaflets in a more marginal seat, for example. An additional problem is the line between national and constituency campaigning. As Liberal Democrat blogger Mark Pack has pointed-out, UK campaign finance law allows for lots of “ersatz local campaigning” that is actually regulated at the national level. Finally, the analysis presented here is rather crude. It would be interesting to build a more complex dataset, employing other variables that might be important to constituency party fundraising (such as whether the incumbent in a constituency is a nationally high-profile politician or whether a Labour MP is trade union sponsored, for example).
Nonetheless in an election with ultra-fine margins where local campaigning looks set to be hugely important, even this limited analysis points towards some interesting questions about how effectively parties are distributing resources.