Accepted Paper:

Apprehending 'culture', rationalising voting: Conservative Party electioneering and the political machine  
Alexander Smith (University of Warwick)

Paper short abstract:

Working within various legal constraints, Conservative Party activists in rural Scotland developed local strategies for rendering the electoral roll 'transparent' and discerning the political allegiances of local voters at the 2003 Scottish Parliament election. This paper explores those strategies.

Paper long abstract:

For many months, preparations for the Scottish Parliament elections dominated the agenda of local Conservative Party activists who generally saw themselves as engaged in a struggle for electoral survival in the 'new' political landscape of post-devolution Scotland. After all, at the 1997 General Election, the Scottish Conservatives lost every one of the eleven Westminster constituencies that they had won in 1992 - including the previously 'safe' Dumfries constituency and the neighbouring seat of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. With their efforts locally drawing on a much-diminished base of support, senior Conservative Party strategists often worked from the assumption that they had endured their own, quite literal 'crisis' in representation, the material consequences of which entailed losses of financial and other resources, legitimacy and local knowledge.

This paper focuses on one particular challenge on which Conservative Party activists focused as they sought to address this 'crisis': to establish the voting intentions of potential supporters in what is otherwise an election by secret ballot. Working within the legal constraints of the Representation of the People Act 1945, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 as well as the Data Protection Act, Conservative Party activists developed a variety of strategies to render the Electoral Roll 'transparent' so that the political allegiances of thousands of local voters could be discerned (imagined). I also explore one particular discursive artefact - the target letter - that was designed to explicitly challenge a political culture that Conservative Party activists perceived as hostile to them. Considered a vital instrument in their campaign's discursive armoury as they sought to 'catch up' and overtake a 'well-oiled' local Labour Party machine, it was hoped that this letter would produce positive electoral 'effects' for local Conservative Party candidates.

Panel W065
Cultures of voting: ethnographies of the secret ballot