Voter-targeting technology could cost UK Conservatives the election

The UK's Conservative Party is struggling to manage its voter-targeting software leaving its campaigners frustrated, while Labour believes its superior strategy will help it outperform the polls and win a number of key marginal seats at the 7 May general election.

Figures familiar with both campaigns have told Newsweek about significant differences between the use of technology to effectively target swing voters – an area into which the parties have funnelled millions of pounds with the aim of replicating the success of American campaigns such as that run by Barack Obama in 2007–08.

Britain's general election is the closest in a generation, with polls putting Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck, and the surge of smaller parties such as Ukip and the Scottish National Party making a coalition government highly likely. Both main parties are targeting core voters. But experts on voter-targeting software from both sides agree that the Conservatives have fallen considerably behind Labour in leveraging modern electioneering techniques – a misstep which may well cost them the election.

Labour is using a system called Contact Creator, based on software from credit ratings company Experian, that allows them to target voters based on their interests and likely voting intentions. The Conservatives have used similar systems – first Merlin, which reportedly crashed during by-elections, and more recently Votesource – but have struggled to implement them on a local level.

"There is a latent culture of grumpiness in [local] associations – because of centrally imposed initiatives," says Dr Anthony Ridge-Newman, author of Cameron's Conservatives and the Internet: Change, Culture and Cyber Toryism, who stood as a Conservative candidate in 2010.

"Merlin is a good example of that, as is Votesource," he adds, "because the party is poorly organised in its approach. It's not necessarily the technologies. It's how late in the day they leave them to be implemented. And the lack of appropriate training and understanding of these technologies at a local level."

So exasperated are some local branches that they say they have reverted to using Excel spreadsheets. ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman has called Votesource "the fly in the ointment".

Mike Joslin, chief executive of Organise Consulting, a political communications company that is working on the Labour campaign, says the technology Labour is using is more advanced than that used to great effect by Obama in 2012. "It is personal campaigning, targeting people based on what they're interested in," he says. "They are using that information to build a relationship."

He says Labour has spent more than a decade building up a centralised database on Contact Creator, which provides party activists with accurate information used to target individuals. "The Labour party is confident in doing very well in local constituencies based on the fact that it has heavily invested and it is making a difference, and the opinion polls show that."

Joslin cites figures from Harrow East, a Conservative seat that has seen Labour rise to a four-point lead in national polls commissioned by the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft.

"They focus on the media," says Joslin of the Conservative campaign, "and that's where they are making a fatal mistake in the general election."