April 7, 2010 • 5:00 pm

With the election set for May 6, an ensuing boom in election leafleting can now be expected, especially for those living in marginal seats.

But with such contests too close to call, are parties resorting to inaccurate use of information to get their noses in front?

 

The Claim

The Straight Choice website has published a Manchester Labour party leaflet featuring Withington PPC Lucy Powell, and council candidate Carl Austin.  Issued in March, the leaflet features a bar chart of an opinion poll showing a close race between the Conservatives and Labour.

There is, however, a slight problem. The Withington Westminster seat is held by the Liberal Democrats, while Burnage council ward targeted by Carl Austin also seats three Lib Dem councillors.

Projections by PoliticsHome.com also suggest that the Liberal Democrats could hold Withington at the forthcoming general election.

So what is the leaflet’s claim based on?

Analysis

The leaflet’s small print shows the bar chart is based on polling data from YouGov concerning national voting intentions, not the constituency specifically. The bar chart also uses seat projections, rather than voting intention percentages, leaving the Liberal Democrats even further behind.

Is this an accurate way of representing both the electoral struggles the leaflet seeks to influence?

The use of the bar chart in the leaflet is based on the premise that only Labour can challenge the Conservatives to win the largest number of MPs in the House of Commons.

The argument is that the Liberal Democrats’ national polling figures mean they are unable to become the Government

As a local Labour party spokesman told Full Fact: “The reason why it was used, is that we’re trying to illustrate how close it is in terms of numbers and seats between Labour and Conservatives.

“If people voted Liberal Democrat in Manchester Withington that means there’s one less Labour seat so it makes it easier for the Conservatives to form a majority.”

While such a defence ignores the polls pointing to a hung parliament seen in recent months, there is a basis for Labour’s defence of the bar chart, due to the nature of the Westminster electoral system.

Full Fact also contacted the Electoral Reform Society, who campaign for fairer elections.

A spokesman for the society, Ashley Dé said the first past the post system opened the door to claims on leaflets that votes for third parties are essentially wasted votes.

“This is all about tactical voting essentially,” he said.

“They’re encouraging you not to vote with your heart. That’s the message in all of these things.”

Naturally the Liberal Democrats were critical of the use of the bar chart on the leaflet. Bill Fisher, a candidate for the Burnage ward on Manchester Council claimed Labour were exaggerating the threat from the Conservatives.

“For all their trying to talk up the Tory threat, there is no Tory threat in Withington because they haven’t won any election of any sort in Manchester for many, many years and they’re nowhere in sight in this election.”

He also suggested that a different voting system could cut out the scope for campaign leaflets seeking tactical voting, such as those in Withington.

“Single transferable vote would mean that people could vote according to their conscience to a much greater extent. They wouldn’t necessarily need to consider the tactical vote which they have done over the last few election.

However Labour’s defence of the bar chart would not hold for the promotion of one of the party’s council candidates on the leaflet, given that local elections are completely separate.

Again the Liberal Democrats are the incumbents for the Burnage ward of Manchester council, but save for a brief mention of Lib-Dem controlled Liverpool council, this battle is not acknowledged in the leaflet.

Full Fact asked the local party if the inclusion of a bar chart for a national election was fair on a leaflet also featuring a local council candidate.

“I don’t think it will give that impression. I take the comment on board but I don’t think it will,” the Labour spokesman said.

“It’s meant to be a national leaflet featuring the local election candidate. It says that it’s a national voting intention poll so we’re not trying to imply voting for Carl Austin let’s the Tories in.”

However, Ashley Dé, saw it slightly differently, telling Full Fact: “It’s not wholly disingenuous, but it’s interesting that stuff like this isn’t subject to Advertising Standards Agency guidelines.

“In fact it’s hardly subject to anything.”
 

Conclusion
 

The polling used on Labour’s election leaflet ignores a crucial aspect of the electoral fight taking place in Withington – that Labour is fighting a close battle to unseat local Liberal Democrat MP, John Leech.

The inclusion of a local council candidate on a leaflet which a party spokesman admitted was national in its focus, also glosses over the battle between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the Burnage ward seat.

So while the bar chart is a fair representation of a national poll, and Labour defend including it on the leaflet, it seems the way it is used, fails to paint the full picture for the people of Withington.

As one angry constituency resident, David Archbold of Kenilworth Avenue told us: “I believe that the bar chart is very misleading.  As it’s a local election leaflet, using figures on a national scale is a little bit sneaky.

“I have a tendency to skim read leaflets, so the bar chart jumps out at me and is likely to affect the way I would vote in the local election.”

Patrick Casey

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