How The Conservatives Are Using Local Adverts To Get Around Election Spending Rules
This is what newspaper advertising tells us about Conservative campaign tactics – and which constituencies they're targeting.
The Conservatives have spent tens of thousands of pounds buying wraparound adverts on local newspapers across the country, pushing deep into Labour-held constituencies with a tactic that shows both the ambition of their election campaign and the party's ability to make the most of legal loopholes in campaign spending rules.
More than a dozen titles across the country owned by major newspaper publishing companies – including Johnston Press and Daily Mirror owner Trinity Mirror – carried the wraparound adverts on Wednesday and Thursday. The four-page adverts, which replace the newspapers' own front pages, barely mention the word "Conservatives" and instead focus on Theresa May's leadership and the promise of Brexit.
As long as the adverts in local papers do not reference the local candidate or local issues, they are considered to be exempt from strict local constituency spending budgets, which can be as low as £12,000 per candidate for the entire campaign. Instead the Conservatives are able to count the adverts as "national spending", which comes under the party's central campaign spending limit of around £19 million.
The Electoral Commission confirmed to BuzzFeed News that such an arrangement is perfectly legal, while a spokesperson for the Conservatives said they abided by all campaign spending laws. In many parts of the country the adverts appeared on the same day as voting in the local elections.
Disputes over the allocation of national spending on local campaigns led to all three major parties being fined following the 2015 general election, while the Crown Prosecution Service is considering whether to bring criminal charges against up to 30 Tory MPs.
The front pages, collated by BuzzFeed News alongside similar work by Channel 4 News' Michael Crick and ConservativeHome's Mark Wallace, show which seats the Conservatives are targeting, with at least 14 different newspapers taking part in the ad splurge.
Many of the front-page adverts were run in traditional Labour-voting areas that also voted Leave, suggesting the Conservatives believe they can win seats they haven't held in almost a century, such as Mansfield – 54th on the Tories' list of target seats – and North East Derbyshire.
Other Labour-held target seats where the adverts appeared include Scunthorpe, Exeter, and two constituencies in Brighton & Hove.
The tactic of buying newspaper adverts is hardly new or unique to the Tories – Labour also buys local newspaper adverts and spent heavily on local press during this year's Copeland by-election – but the extent of this week's shock-and-awe advertising strategy and the choice of publications have raised eyebrows as to the ambition of the Conservative campaign.
"If you had a limited amount of money you would not be doing this," said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. "You'd spend it on direct mail or social media marketing. But if you've got a lot of money and you've already hit people three or four times then this is a very cheap way of hitting a lot of people. If you've got the cash, you'll do it."
Cowley said the Conservatives' ability to buy spend large sums buying advertising in target constituencies without it counting towards local spending exposed a "massive flaw" in the rules, which defied common sense. Since the electoral spending rules benefit the party with the most money – currently the Conservatives – he said they are unlikely to be changed in the near future, assuming opinion polls are correct and Theresa May wins the general election.
Local newspapers benefit from being prominently displayed at shops throughout constituencies – meaning even if the public do not buy them, they are likely to see a front-page Conservative advert for as long as the paper remains on sale.
There are some problems with the approach, though.
"The big downside is that it's the most public way of signalling the seats you're targeting," Cowley added. "Direct mail targeting and social media targeting are fairly private. This is a big 'Hello, look, here we are' sign as to the seats we're targeting."
However, hours later, the Argus's website had changed – instead leading on a picture of a smiling prime minister visiting the newspaper offices, posing with the front-page advert paid for by her own campaign.
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