Austin Rathe talks to the Standard about the importance of political geekery

imageThe appointment of Obama’s strategist David Axelrod to advise the Labour Party has prompted the Standard to take a look at the digital operations of the three main parties. All three are looking to the success of the Obama campaign’s collection and use of data.

We know that the most effective digital campaigners are those who spend most of their time on the doorsteps. Jo Swinson was a Twitter pioneer, as was Willie Rennie and we know how much time Tim Farron spends on there. These three share a massive commitment and getting out and talking to people in real life. The rest is supplementary.

The Standard talks to digital gurus from Labour, the Conservative and our very own Austin Rathe.

What you need is political data about the right people in the right places,” says Austin Rathe, the Lib-Dems’ digital chief. That is often still best gathered face to face.

The article acknowledges that we were the first Austin, who is described, accurately, as “well regarded” added that our digital stuff is “very much based on the US experience. “

It goes on to talk about the problems the Tories have had with their Merlin database, most notably when it went down during the Eastleigh by-election last year.

What the Standard article didn’t mention was the stellar success of the SNP’s digital operation in 2011 when it did what was thought to be impossible and won an overall majority at Holyrood as this Herald report shows.

Pivotal, as it was in 2007, was the party’s bespoke voter database, Activate.

A record of all 3.9 million voters, it also showed which people had voted previously, and how they fitted into 44 consumer types identified by postcode, family type, income and age.

The SNP reckoned it could win by appealing to around 20 demographic groups, and went after them with a vengeance.

For example, instead of wasting money leafleting serial non-voters in Labour council estates, Activate could pinpoint regular, aspirational voters in new-build houses popular with families.

There was also an Activate smartphone App, which told activists on the ground the nearest doors to knock on, then let them feed their canvass returns back instantaneously, updating Activate.

In some weeks, the SNP was able to canvass 25,000 people. Most commercial polls talk to around 1000 people.

You can have all the shiny tech in the world, but it only works if you give it fuel in terms of reports of voter contact. I’ve become more and more convinced, especially with being in Government, that it’s the conversations that will persuade people to vote for us.  As I argued after the Dunfermline by-election, a little more conversation is what’s needed. Of course, the Americans don’t have the option of door to door leafleting as it’s illegal, so they have to get out there and find their voters. It’s highly affective. So, I guess if you’re a Lib Dem member, the challenge is to speak to as many people as possible in the first instance over the next 29 days and then almost constantly until May 2015.

Photo by duda C.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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13 Comments

  • @ Caracatus

    And your instant recipe for implementing our student fees policy was what, exactly?

  • Peter Watson 24th Apr '14 - 7:55am

    @RC “And your instant recipe for implementing our student fees policy was what, exactly?”
    The study published today by the IFS is the latest evidence to suggest that changing the system will not save the taxpayer money, so surely a better question for Lib Dems is “What was the point in breaking the pledge?”. Doing nothing would have been closer to party policy than a U-turn, it would not have damaged the party’s reputation, and apparently would have been no worse for the taxpayer.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Apr '14 - 8:31am

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Caractacus. In Scotland, the Lib Dems have been praised by NUS for persuading the SNP Government to minimise college cuts. Also, we have increasing numbers of students from deprived backgrounds going to university. We have something very positive to tell all sorts of people – women (shared parental leave, pension reform, raising tax threshold), LGBT people (equal marriage), pensioners (triple lock, removing means testing, biggest ever cash rise in state pension), parents (childcare help, free school meals, pupil premium).

  • @ Peter Watson

    A very good question given 20/20 hindsight/wisdom *after the event*. However:

    1) All the evidence at the time said it would save money;
    2) We did break the pledge based on the fact that we didn’t have enough money to do what we wanted to do;
    3) Given the funding gap for student tuition, some other solution would have had to have been found;
    4) It is not clear that a graduate tax would work, given that tax revenues will take up to 25 years to build up to provide the necessary funding as successive cohorts of students graduate.
    5) No-one has proposed any workable alternative solutions that would have been acceptable to the majority of MPs.

    So really your posting doesn’t leave us any further ahead on the matter of tuition fees, does it?

  • I agree, voter contact and knowledgable local branches beat a centralised automated system hands down. There’s a parallel trend in retail banking if you torture the analogy. The question becomes, do the libdems want to remain part of the communities they serve or part of the past?

    I take your point on scotland but the circumstances are a bit different. Communities are more close knit outside of the biggest cities. The SNP had an uber-enthusiastic membership/activist base (I think some expats came back specifically to help the campaign).

    I believe when you speak on the doorstep, you can encounter oppobrium but also unlock latent voting intentions which won’t be revealed by surveys. Its just hard work and requires real people supported by the party, their politicians and good organisers.

  • Peter Watson 24th Apr '14 - 11:45am

    @ RC “A very good question given 20/20 hindsight/wisdom *after the event*.”
    “After the event”, it looks as though Lib Dem MPs would be better off if they’d honoured the promises they made “before the event” and the taxpayer would be no worse off.

    As well as calling for others to suggest “workable alternative solutions”, perhaps you could also explain why there are none and why the new system is such a good one, maybe even the best or only approach. After all, Lib Dems had a very different policy only a few months before it, one which had been subject to analysis and debate, and defended in an election campaign. I hope the party wasn’t garnering support for something it believed to be unworkable. The Lib Dem position began to move during negotiation of the Coalition Agreement, before Lord Browne’s report or any new evidence was presented, and only days after campaigning for the student vote in the General Election. I have much more respect for the notion implied in your numbered points that this current scheme is not what Lib Dems wanted then, is not what Lib Dems want now, and is all that we could get out of the Tories and Labour. But instead the party’s position is unclear (even/especially after last year’s autumn conference in Glasgow which left abolition of fees still an option/aspiration) and it gives the impression that the current tuition fees system is exactly what Lib Dems want.

    I agree that a solution to the funding gap would have to have been found, but unfortunately it looks as though a solution still needs to be found. Sadly Lib Dems have lost credibility in the national debate that is still necessary. This is a crying shame as the party could and did have a valuable and distinctive contribution to make to it. And having implemented this particular system, it will be very difficult to consider moving to any alternatives without working out how to satisfy voters already lumbered with large graduate debts.

  • @ Peter Watson

    “I hope the party wasn’t garnering support for something it believed to be unworkable. ”

    The party was garnering support for a policy that turned out to be unaffordable given it would have required higher general taxation all round, something the Conservatives would NEVER have agreed to. It was only affordable in the context of a majority Lib Dem government.

    The party wanted it so much that little problems like affordability weren’t going to get in its way. Nick Clegg’s fault was in the way dealt with this situation. He should have said no (and indeed he wanted to say no), but he couldn’t.

  • @ Peter Watson

    “After the event”, it looks as though Lib Dem MPs would be better off if they’d honoured the promises they made “before the event”

    How exactly could they have done that?

  • @RC – In a national budget, almost nothing was is unaffordable. You just have to reallocate resources. There was a costed plan. Our negotiators just didn’t make it a red line. Cameron had his red lines (e.g. “absolutely nothing that affects OAPS” irrespective of the cost), and stuck to them. Nick let him, but Nick diddn’t have the bottle to stick to his promise. You say “the Conservatives would NEVER have agreed to” it, sorry negotiations are a game of poker. I fear you, like Nick, fell for the Conservatives’ bluff.

  • Peter Watson 24th Apr '14 - 3:45pm

    @RC “How exactly could they have done that? [honoured the promises they made before the event]”
    Some Lib Dem MPs did honour their promise. I believe they acted with integrity; what do you think of their behaviour?
    All Lib Dem parliamentary candidates promised, “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.” Honouring the first part by simply voting against the increase might not have stopped the changes but at least the party and its MPs would not be seen as purveyors of snake oil. The second part of the pledge relates to fairness, but in the Lib Dem manifesto the party made it pretty clear with a commitment to “scrap unfair university tuition fees” that fairness and tuition fees were unlikely bedfellows. I’ve seen people try to rationalise the pledge as having two separate irreconcilable parts (which would at best suggest that Lib Dems were therefore incompetent to sign and publicise it), but whether it was a commitment to “pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative” to fees or to an increase in fees, Lib Dems broke that part of the pledge.

    The IFS report is the latest evidence that the new system will not reduce the bill to the taxpayer, and if it does not increase income to universities it must be simply redistributing the burden between graduates rather than to graduates, so who is to say it is “fairer”? Indeed, under the new scheme students with the highest salary expectations and the wealth to pay fees up front can save money, which does not sound “fair”.

    I feel that Lib Dems have squandered the opportunity for a fuller and more open national debate about the important issue of funding for higher education. Such a debate might even have happened if Lib Dems had stuck to their principles (would it really have been a coalition deal breaker, after all, what contribution did it make to reducing the deficit?). Even if the outcome was the same the story would have been about education funding rather than broken promises. The party’s MPs have damaged the reputation of Lib Dems and allowed an important issue to become mired down in politics rather than principles. It appears that the new system might not be fair or even the best approach, but positions have probably become too entrenched to improve or change it.

  • Paul In Twickenham 24th Apr '14 - 10:28pm

    There’s analysis that shows that if you choose a random wikipedia article and then keep clicking through the first link in the main text then you will eventually get to the article “Philosophy”. Apparently this is true for 94% of all wiki articles, with a median click requirement of 23 clicks to get there. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Get_to_Philosophy

    I sometimes think there is a similar rule in LDV that at some point all threads get to the tuition fee pledge…

  • Caron Lindsay “We have something very positive to tell all sorts of people – women (shared parental leave, pension reform, raising tax threshold), LGBT people (equal marriage), pensioners (triple lock, removing means testing, biggest ever cash rise in state pension), parents (childcare help, free school meals, pupil premium).”

    And yet the Lib Dems still poll at c10%.

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