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Did COVID-19 change campaigning in the Scottish and Welsh Parliament Elections of 2021? Evidence from campaign spending returns

Published: 3 February 2022

Following campaign spending returns being published this week by the Electoral Commission, Dr Alistair Clark, Reader in Politics at Newcastle University, analyses how election campaign spending might have changed under Covid-19 circumstances in the Scottish and Welsh elections of 2021.

The Electoral Commission have just published campaign spending returns for parties who spent over £250,000 in the Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections of 2021. These elections were conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. UKRI-funded research by Toby James, Erik Asplund and colleagues at International IDEA and myself has shown that pandemic circumstances impacted the way in which parties have campaigned since February 2020.

Expectations of campaigns were driven by the need to maintain social distancing and the prospect of campaigning contributing to the spread of the virus being uppermost among concerns. One study of 18 of Donald Trump’s campaign rallies estimated that there had been an additional 250 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents of the locality where they were each held, which was extrapolated to more than 30,000 incremental confirmed cases, and more than 750 deaths, not necessarily among attendees.

The expectation in the various elections taking place in Britain in May 2021 – scheduled Scottish and Welsh elections and postponed English local government, PCC and mayoral elections – was that in-person events would be minimal, and that traditional door-knocking canvassing and GOTV activity would be heavily restricted by limitations on movement, association and visiting households. Instead, mailings, online campaigning and more media work by senior party leaders was likely to fill the gap. What effect this would have on turnout was unknown, although our research with IDEA had shown a general decline in turnouts in COVID-era elections, albeit not universally and with variations.

Patterns of campaign spending

In both Scotland and Wales, the total amount spent increased somewhat, within the bounds of the campaign spending limits set in electoral law for both institutions. In Scotland, spending increased by around £1.7m to just over £5m in total. In Wales, total campaign spending across all parties grew by around £550,000 to just over £1.8m. What is of interest here is not spend by parties, something to be examined in due course but which requires considerable work to analyse. Instead, what is of interest here is analysis by category of spending as regulated by and reported to the Electoral Commission, with a view to examining if any patterns can be detected which might have been related to the need to change campaign techniques due to COVID-19.

Figures 1 and 2 show patterns of spending in both the 2016 and 2021 Scottish parliament and NAW/Senedd elections. Data come from Electoral Commission spending returns, while the analysis is mine alone. In Scotland the amount spent on unsolicited mail to electors (e.g. direct mail) accounted for more than £1m of the overall increase in campaign spending. Media spending increased more than ten-fold from £7,559, to £95,864, while transport spending increased three-fold from around £48,000 in 2016 to £157,000 in 2021. Spending on rallies and events remained the same at around £70,000 while that on manifesto material almost halved to £36,256. In Wales, unsolicited material spending increased by around 60% to just under £1.1m, while spending on advertising tripled to £365,748. Spending on rallies and events by contrast fell to only £2,563 from around ten times that five years earlier.

Older methods prevailed over newer?

Causation is difficult to show, not least since in Scotland this election was highly motivated by the issue of Scottish independence, and the Unionist parties appear to have spent considerably more than in 2016. Nonetheless, these appear suggestive patterns in line with the more remote campaigning expected during COVID circumstances. More analysis is of course required. However, it is important to note that rather than the much hyped online and social media campaigns that might have been expected to take much of the strain during the pandemic, this seems to show that it is the older, tried, tested and reliable methods of direct and unsolicited mail and material that seem to have been increased under these challenging campaign conditions in Scotland and Wales in the most recent devolved elections.  

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This blog is cross-posted from the Newcastle University Elections, Politics and Policy blog

Dr Alistair Clark is Reader in Politics at Newcastle University. He has written widely on political parties, electoral integrity and Scottish electoral politics, particularly local government elections. He tweets at @ClarkAlistairJ.

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Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash.

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