Thursday, 22 March 2018

Tides

Although it might be a surprise to some of the newer members of my Party, in a democracy the purpose of political Parties is to win elections.

At the first by-election in which I was heavily involved, Glasgow Garscadden 1978, I encountered for the first time, the wonders of what was known as the "Reading System" so called because it had first been developed by Reading Constituency Labour Party to win that very seat at the 1945 General Election.

Now, the Reading system, primitive as it now appears, was all about data. As activists of all colours will know, contrary to the impression perhaps of the general public, canvassing on the doorstep or in more modern times over the phone, is not intended to persuade people to vote for you. No, it is intended to find out how these people are already intending to vote and then to make use of that information to best advantage. Back in 1978 that was essentially in one way, by maximising the chances of getting your voters to the actual polling stations on the due day. And that was where the Reading system came into its own.

For canvas results were collated and then marked up onto many layered street by street duplicate pads (known as Mikardo sheets in honour of our 1945 candidate) which by polling day morning had been pinned or stuck to pasting tables in the committee rooms. "Numbertakers" were then dispatched to the polling stations with the sole purpose of asking for the polling card numbers or names of those voting and that information then conveyed back to the committee rooms where the names of those Labour voters "already voted" could be scored off the sheets.

So, when the knock up teams went out to remind people to vote and/or assist them to the polls these voters could be by-passed, making maximum use of limited personnel resources. The knock up teams could also feed back voters who, on the doorstep, claimed to have voted unrecorded at the polling station, again refining the targets for a "second knock up" (and making sure you weren't annoying people by repeatedly knocking their door).

It was very homespun technology but for its time it was state of the art. So much so that the Tories quickly realised that imitation was the best form of flattery and developed a pretty similar system of their own.

For the best use of the technology of the time, whether to "Get out the vote" or persuade the public in a particular direction has always been used by political parties.

I give but a few brief examples. The first, targeted mail. The masters of this seem to me initially to have been the Liberals. Traditional canvassing created data not just about which people were voting for your own Party but also about their voting intention if they were not. This latter information was of limited use to the two big Parties but it provided an opportunity for the one in the middle. In a "safe" Tory seat, where the Libs were second, knowing the identity of intended Labour voters could be used to turn base metal data into gold. These voters could be targeted with the message "only the Libs (Lib/Dems) can beat the Tories here", initially with little more than one of their famous/infamous "Bar chart" leaflets but as the coming computer age allowed, increasingly with personally addressed and delivered communications. To be fair, the Libs were ecumenical in this, in that they applied exactly the same technique to Tory voters in "safe" Labour seats.

Next, advertising. Political Parties had used advertising agencies to limited degree since the 1950s but in 1979, with the engagement of Saatchi & Saatchi, the Tories took this to a completely new level. Their "Labour isn't working" posters scar my memory to this day but the passage of time lets me realise that my annoyance with them was based entirely on their undoubted effectiveness.

Then, the use of the Party Political Broadcast. "Forever" these had been little more than talking heads, talking up the merits of the producing Party and in passing the iniquitousness of their opponents. In 1987, Labour changed the game with "Kinnock: The Movie", boasting state of the art cinematography, directed by a top Holywood director, talking about our candidate for Prime Minister as something more than a politician and, for a few days at least, transforming what appeared like a foregone conclusion into a real contest.

But what, including the Reading system, do these four examples have in common? Their opponents,  at the time, thought them "unfair".

I'm sure, were he still in the land of the living, the Tory agent in Reading would complain that interfering with the inclination of the voter to vote, or not to vote, at their discretion, was "not cricket". Although both Labour and Tory modern digital equivalents, Contact Creator and VoteSource respectively are both truly grandchildren of Reading.

I am certain that both big Parties thought the Libs Bar charts misleading, or at least not in keeping with the spirit of a first past the post Electoral system. Indeed we still do, although both of us now use targeted mail in a far more sophisticated manner than its pioneers ever envisaged.

I am equally certain that Labour's advertising strategy, after the disastrous first try of 1983's "Think Positive, Act Positive, Vote Labour", is now based on our advertisers being better than their advertisers. Rather than that professional advertising expertise is per se a bad thing. (As was undoubtedly our 1979 response, for I was there).

And finally, the Tories rejoinder to "Kinnock: The Movie"? Ultimately it was the equally effective "John Major: Brixton boy", five years later. Scratch equally effective, for they won. Handing me the most miserable night of my political life.

So, to Cambridge Analytica.

Is this not just history repeating itself?

Obama for America was a joyous thing but its very progenitors would concede the importance of the then relatively early impact of social media in making it so. In every State, across every demographic group, streamed coverage of those wonderful early speeches were used to give rise to any number of "........... for Obama" online communities to get activists engaged for what was then, still, largely on the (terrestial) ground activity. By re-election day in 2012, the same team were boasting of their intention to fight the most micro data campaign ever. Which they then did. Online data was now king and people who understood data were overwhelmingly young and edgy and.....lefty. So the future was ours.

And less than a year ago, the surprise outcome of the UK General Election was ascribed specifically to the by passing of the "main stream media" to deliver a (literally) revolutionary message online, entirely unseen until the polls closed. Although we shouldn't lose sight that we still lost.

But that was all fair because "we" did it. When however precisely the same techniques were employed by our bitterest opponents, Trump and Leave UK, well, obviously, that must have been "unfair" in some way.

Except was it? I have struggled, in the wall of coverage, to find any actual accusation of specific illegality, as opposed to exploitation of inadequate regulation.  There are lots of implications of links to "fake news" but no actual evidence of it. The one really dodgy thing, the suggestions of "honey traps" and blackmail, is the one aspect of the whole thing that has no link to the internet at all, and is hardly news to anybody who has seen the Godfather Part 2. Which is where I suspect the big talking Mr Nix got his inspiration. Mainly the coverage consists of a complaint that no properly informed people could possibly have voted for Trump or Brexit so "something" must be up.

But maybe what was up was people rejecting the status quo. The failure of a metropolitan middle class elite (me included) to appreciate that "the system" had failed too many people who felt it was due a kicking for that failure. An earlier failure to defend what we saw as that system's self evident merits against an encroaching tide of "nothing could be worse" fuelled by little more than ignorance.

And if our opponents found a tool, within the rules, to refine and target and give voice to that rejectionist sentiment?

Labour did not win Reading in 1945 just because of our superior get out the vote strategy any more than the Tories won in 1979 just because of their superior advertising. Each victory actually depended on seizing the tide of history.

Maybe my team should stop getting madder and madder amongst ourselves about contests lost and instead start to think how we might, in future contests, get even. 

To accept that our losses were not down to the illegality of our opponents tactics as to, for the moment, the inadequacy of our own.

To start, once again, to catch the tide of history.






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