2017: The ultimate development of the modern British campaign

That Tory after-action report (one, two, three) is quite the thing. Something that sticks out for me is that the 2017 election might have been the moment when the shrinking Tory membership finally caught up with them. This is something that has been promised for getting on for decades, but if it can’t go on like this, it won’t. Long-term trends have their effect through contingent moments in history.

For example:

For example, after the 2010 election, the Conservative Party held about 500,000 email addresses, which had shrunk to about 300,000 which were still usable by the time planning began again in 2013. By the end of the 2015 General Election, that list had grown to around 1.4 million through proactive gathering of addresses through online campaigns – but, by April 2017, almost two years of leakage had again drastically reduced the list.

The same went for data gathered through canvassing. CCHQ’s Voter ID and Get Out The Vote operation in 2015 had worked well, particularly in its ruthless targeting of voters in what were then Lib Dem seats. But that data was now out of date, and even the proportion of it which was still usable was now far less relevant. The 2017 battlegrounds largely weren’t in those former Lib Dem seats, and the potential swing vote mostly wasn’t Lib-Con. Data on the disillusioned former Labour and UKIP voters in Midlands and Northern seats was in short supply. The Conservative Party had played no formal role in the EU referendum, and so had no Leave/Remain canvassing data of its own. And the intervening local and mayoral elections had not yielded enough data to overcome either problem. The advent of Brexit had certainly fractured old loyalties, but the Conservative Party only had a limited idea of where this had happened, and who it had happened to.

Politics is very often a question of lists, lists that are generated by activism. The Messina/Crosby, Facebook-bomber campaign model was no different. In fact, because of its heavy reliance on targeted ad drops from CCHQ, it was much more so. Of course, a major reason for the Tories’ love of online advertising was precisely that it was a substitute for mobilisation. From the lists sprang the strategy, notably the Leave = UKIP = Tory concept, the effort to flip the North, and the obsessive focus on May herself.

What they came up with – principally via work by Messina and Textor – was a calculation that focused on winning over two groups of voters: former UKIP supporters, and direct switchers from Labour, particularly those who had voted Leave and were often part of Labour’s traditional working class vote, many of whom were to be found in seats in the Midlands and the North. Their plan, dubbed “Targeted Voter Turnout” (TVT), sat at the centre of everything that was to follow with the ground campaign (of which, more tomorrow). It dictated who the potential switchers were, it extrapolated from the consumer data to determine where they probably lived, down to individuals within households, and by looking at how many such people lived in each constituency, it drove the choice of which seats to target. While ordinarily, other specialised aspects of the campaign – such as digital – would develop their own models, the lack of time meant the whole operation rested on this analysis.

At the same time, messages were being developed and tested to sharpen the campaign’s appeal to those groups. One fateful development at this early stage was the decision to shift from a more traditional, team-based model of campaigning, to a highly personalised obsession with May herself as the figurehead – an approach we now know was recommended by Crosby and Textor in April, shortly before the campaign. We all remember the banners proclaiming “Theresa May’s team”, and anyone involved in the canvassing operation will recall the scripts that spoke endlessly of “Theresa May’s candidate”. The die had to be cast quickly, on the basis of less than ideal information – so it was.

The campaign operated largely blind once the whistle blew, both because it didn’t get doorstep feedback and because somebody – possibly Lynton Crosby – had bought into the fashionable idea that the polls are always wrong.

At this point, we need to consider how a campaign in this situation might learn that it has such a problem. It could get it from the polls – but with a time lag, with lots of noise, and with the caveat that the Conservative experience in 2015 and 2016 taught them not to trust pollsters. It could hear it from its own campaign data – but if there are movements taking place among people whom you aren’t canvassing, then you won’t hear it. Or it could hear it from its candidates and activists – but CCHQ, as we will see in tomorrow’s article, has a somewhat sceptical view of its own colleagues on the ground.

Tory target selection was also driven by a basically untried model. Even when there was feedback, it’s possible it was so patchy that it created an availability bias:

Around the country, as the results came in, numerous experienced campaigners in Tory seats with large majorities realised to their horror that while they had been travelling often long distances to give mutual aid to supposed target seats where Labour won convincingly, Tory-held seats far closer to them had been lost. In one instance, a well-resourced association saw the Labour majority in their allotted target seat increase, while a Conservative seat which they drove through regularly to get to the target was lost.

This mismatch got worse as time went on, too. Positive early canvassing returns (pre-manifesto) and the encouraging local election results led CCHQ’s strategists to start not only treating Tory-held marginals as safe, but to divert resources away from the more marginal Labour-held target seats and towards target seats further down the list, ie those with bigger majorities.

Although the highly centralised campaign model was a consequence of the need for speed and the lack of numbers, it also suited its architects down to the ground. After all, it was their decision to call an election anyway. It meant that the Conservative HQ got to pick literally all the candidates:

The immediate problem of needing to select hundreds of candidates in a very tight window was answered with special rules to override the usual, more drawn-out, process. These divided seats into two groups, with a distinct process for each. The first, Conservative-held seats where the sitting MP was standing down and Opposition-held target seats, would be presented with a shortlist of three candidates, decided by CCHQ, from which the Association had to select. The second, non-target seats, would simply have a candidate imposed on them.

Write the leaflets:

Blueprint, the online ordering system for Tory leaflets, offered a limited range of templates based on the type of seat – Tory-held, target, non-target – and the bulk of the content for each leaflet was pre-written centrally on the national message. All the target seat candidates were rushed to London to take part in a marathon photoshoot to ensure each had a picture with the Prime Minister, but there was normally only a small space for local messaging or even information about who the Conservative candidate “standing with Theresa May” was. “We were only allowed about 20 words per leaflet about local issues, rest taken up with Theresa May, Brexit, and Corbyn,” complains an officer in a target seat who used the system.

And post to Facebook:

The same centralised approach applied online. “CCHQ took admin rights to our Facebook pages, but everything they posted was “we’re better than Jeremy Corbyn/Jeremy Corbyn will lead to chaos”, as one candidate puts it.

In many ways, Theresa May’s 2017 campaign was the ultimate development of the way British political campaigns had been going for years, a genuine heir to Blair if you will. It wrote the leaflets, picked the candidates, posted to hundreds of Facebook groups over the local chairman’s name. As you might expect from that, it also didn’t pick up on some important developments. The effort to “get the band back together” and repeat 2015 missed that 2015 wasn’t all that. Despite politicising the Treasury to an unheard-of degree, ramping up rhetorical aggression, and benefiting from the unconvenanted blessings of the Lib Dem collapse and SNP triumph, the Tories of 2015 still only just squeaked over the line by pushing the campaigning rules to the limit and a bit beyond. Having turned the amplifier up to 11, there wasn’t anywhere left to go.

CCHQ’s advice on electoral law led them to believe they had found a way to avoid that problem: regional battle buses, that toured multiple seats, would, they believed, constitute national spending, avoiding the danger that a bus could wipe out a large chunk of a candidate’s campaign budget in a single day.

As the Electoral Commission and CCHQ have now discovered, that belief was wrong. The investigation that ensued into allegations that MPs had failed to properly declare their local spending as a result of the tactic proved damaging. Individuals and the party as a whole were derided as committing electoral fraud (mostly wrongly, it turned out) and MPs found themselves subjected to police interviews and negative media coverage. CCHQ was reluctant, and therefore shamefully slow, to put its hands up and clearly admit that candidates were innocent of any intentional offence precisely because it had issued them with incorrect advice.

In 2015, the polls were wrong and the modelling seemed to work. As a result, there was near religious faith that the same thing would happen. This is really astonishing:

Despite the inaccuracies which had by then become obvious, the decision was taken not to confine the GOTV knocking up to Conservative pledges – those who had confirmed their intention to vote Tory. Instead, troops in a variety of target seats were sent to knock on doors based on the inaccurate TVT data. A flawed hope still seemed to be lingering that the model might turn up voters who hadn’t been contacted yet.

“On the day, we were not using canvass data, but going to doors extrapolated from the demographics,” a long-serving campaigner tells me. Another found that “inexperienced centrally appointed campaign managers who don’t get elections, activists or campaigning…[were] telling activists not to call on pledges.” This appears to have been a central instruction, enforced by the Party’s local employees.

They didn’t knock up voters who they’d IDd as Tories, because the computer said no. Instead they went to addresses where they hoped a potential voter might dwell – in other words, they didn’t actually do any knocking-up, just continued canvassing. Even if you have good lists, you still find people have moved right up until polling day, so the sheer waste of time involved in working from a model based on data from 2005 is awe-inspiring.

And apparently a whole bulk e-mail drop only happened the morning afterwards. I would have paid cash money to watch that.

Anyway, their conclusions are here. The point that sticks out a mile, because it is hardly mentioned, is that they need to find some activists from somewhere. How they will do that is far from obvious. On the other hand, I worry that Tory bungling played a huge role in the election and they can surely not be this hopeless again. At the very least, surely next time they will bother to knock their own likelies up.

1 Comment on "2017: The ultimate development of the modern British campaign"

  1. the sheer waste of time involved in working from a model based on data from 2005 is awe-inspiring

    I suspect Labour were saved from a similar fate mainly by being able to put boots on the ground on quite a large scale. On my one trip out canvassing this year, I remember one house where the clipboard guy warned me not to expect much – “they’re all down as definitely not Labour”. I knocked, someone came to the door, I asked who he’d be voting for, and he looked at me as if I’d asked him what year it was – “Well, Labour. We’re all Labour here.” I told the board guy, and we took a closer look at the information we were working from: last canvassed in 2005.

    Course, being Labour – and definitely not being Labour – meant something a bit different back then. But if my local branch hadn’t had new members to spare, it might not have bothered canvassing those streets again (they clearly didn’t bother in 2010 or 2015), and we’d never have known – and we certainly wouldn’t have knocked up that house on election morning.


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