Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower used to work for Lib Dems and warned us of our 2015 demise

The Cambridge Analytica data story that’s been unfolding is equally fascinating and terrifying.

Today, the Observer has an interview with the whistleblower Christopher Wylie. 

He’s only 28, but he’s worked for the Canadian Liberals, the Obama campaign and the Liberal Democrats.

At 19, he taught himself to code, and in 2010, age 20, he came to London to study law at the London School of Economics.

“Politics is like the mob, though,” he says. “You never really leave. I got a call from the Lib Dems. They wanted to upgrade their databases and voter targeting. So, I combined working for them with studying for my degree.”

I have always been pretty wary of Facebook quizzes because I’ve been sceptical about them having small print somewhere that allows them to access more information about me that I’m happy with complete strangers having. I tend to go through my privacy settings to see if I’ve inadvertently given anyone permission to take my personal data. It turns out I have good reason for being so careful. I know that some of my friends don’t use Facebook at all, partly because of concerns about data security.

Back in 2013, Chris Wylie made this conclusion about the Liberal Democrats after studying results of research into measuring personality traits across millions of people:

“I wanted to know why the Lib Dems sucked at winning elections when they used to run the country up to the end of the 19th century,” Wylie explains. “And I began looking at consumer and demographic data to see what united Lib Dem voters, because apart from bits of Wales and the Shetlands it’s weird, disparate regions. And what I found is there were no strong correlations. There was no signal in the data.

“And then I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behaviour, and it suddenly made sense. Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems they’re absent-minded professors and hippies. They’re the early adopters… they’re highly open to new ideas. And it just clicked all of a sudden.”

Here was a way for the party to identify potential new voters. The only problem was that the Lib Dems weren’t interested.

“I did this presentation at which I told them they would lose half their 57 seats, and they were like: ‘Why are you so pessimistic?’ They actually lost all but eight of their seats, FYI.”

To be fair, it was obvious to everyone that we were likely to take a massive hit in 2015. Few predicted the extent of our demise and you wouldn’t have needed this kind of tool to suggest that our campaign strategy was, shall we say, sub-optimal. 

Our Home Affairs spokesperson Ed Davey has called for a full investigation into Cambridge Analytica’s activities:

If these allegations against Cambridge Analytica are correct then it is a shocking betrayal of people’s personal data.

If this data was then actively exploited for political gain it is both underhand and immoral. This whistleblower has made serious allegations of what would be dodgy practices. They must now be investigated.

My fear is this could be the tip of the iceberg and all campaign work linked to Cambridge Analytica must now be scrutinised, including any links to elections in the UK.

 

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

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37 Comments

  • This is of course very important and must be investigated. It must NOT be at the expense of trying to win seats on council, regional government and parliament. It also seems to me that we need to talk further to Chris Wylie about his paper. Any ideas about how to increase our vote must be followed up.

  • #IAgreeWithMick

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Mar '18 - 12:12pm

    “I know that some of my friends don’t use Facebook at all, partly because of concerns about data security.”

    Sounds pretty sensible…

  • Of course there were hundreds if not thousands of Lib Dems who were telling the party and its leaders that it was going to collapse, both directly and on LDV. Even more did so by simply leaving the party they had fought for for decades.

    However, they were faced with an intransigent and implacable party machine manned by experts who preferred to pretend it could be that bad or simply did not to believe it could be – It was obvious, but they ignored all the signs – and the party’s future was sacrificed on the altar of supporting the Conservatives for a full five years through coalition.

    How to increase our membership? Don’t just listen to experts, who can talk a great theory, but most of whom have never done it for themselves. Listen to those who have done it and succeeded in building a party from the grassroots up already.

  • Correction “who preferred to pretend it could *not* be that bad …”

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Mar '18 - 12:30pm

    I agree that Liberalism is associated with openness but low conscientiousness? When we pride ourselves on getting things done and know we won’t win unless we work harder than anyone else? Judging from all the pics on Facebook of Lib Dems out in the snow canvassing and delivering this isn’t the case. However I agree with Mick and Jennie that we should look at this paper further.

  • David Becket 18th Mar '18 - 12:49pm

    @David Evans
    Agreed, but has the current party machine learnt any lessons

  • Low conscientiousness, hippies and absent minded professors? This really bears very little resemblance to the Lib Dem world I have campaigned in for nearly 35 years.

  • Laurence Cox 18th Mar '18 - 1:26pm

    This is a blog posting by Francis Irving from 2016 that is based on some work originally done back in 2006 (see the Google slides).

    https://www.flourish.org/2016/07/on-finding-political-axes-using-maths/

    Conscientiousness is actually a bad term for what Liberals are not. If Wylie had seen the 2006 work he mght have understood that the real problem for Liberals is their almost exact overlap with Labour (slide 30) on the two strongest axes (the axis of UKIP and the economic axis). Where we differ is in beliefs that don’t cluster to form strong axes.

    It would be rather interesting if You Gov were to repeat this, as I think that Corbynite Labour would be in a distinctly different position to Blairite Labour, not only more to the left economically, but also more to the right on the authoritarian axis.

  • Bill le Breton 18th Mar '18 - 2:05pm

    I agree with Paul Holmes – and there is no magic bullet, there is no magic gunman for hire. Our then leader tried this and hired a few of these electoral q* acks to no effect – to the opposite effect because they had no first hand experience of our voters in their communities.

    We were actually increasingly good at winning elections from the early 1980s – especially so in local elections and by-elections. But eventually in more and more constituencies, too.

    Those who organised successful campaigns knew how complex was the nature of the Liberal/Liberal Democrat vote and designed long term and astute campaigns. These campaigns built alliance and allegiances, developed people’s confidence in us, began to produce habits of Liberalism that helped the resilience of the vote when MSM pushed against us.

    There was talk in the Coalition years of aiming for a group of people that made up 25% of the electorate. But actually that group was probably nearer 15% of the voters. Of that 15% we were regularly getting (across the nations) 23% of them to vote for us up to 2010. But by 2012 that proportion had fallen to 11%. That is among 10 of our best prospects we were getting the backing of just one person.

    And of course elements of the potential vote that we had carefully put together over those years but did not court when we actually had influence, and actively alienated, left us in huge numbers.

    To be a successful Liberal here is no substitute for being in touch with people in their communities. Campaigns that are built on trickery and deception are the opposite of Liberal.

  • OnceALibDem 18th Mar '18 - 2:39pm

    The party seemed to me very disinterested in encouraging people to develop new ideas for identifying supporters other than very intensive and inefficient personal contact. Indeed the bulk adding to connect of data from external sources (wholly legal and non-personal data such as census or house price data was not allowed).

    All a bit moot though as the party will now only be contacting people through social media and apps who have specifically, voluntarily and in full knowledge of how they will be contacted agreed to that.

  • Agree with what others are saying about the characterisation of Lib Dems. My local party seems very short of hippies and professors (absent minded or otherwise).

    Regarding Facebook however, I am one of those that chooses not to have anything to do with it, and it annoys me when it is used for internal party business, on “closed” groups etc.

    Facebook’s business is collecting data, analysing it, and selling it to pretty much anyone willing to pay. There is no point in complaining when they follow their business model to the letter. If you don’t like then don’t use it.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Mar '18 - 3:28pm

    Bill le Breton is right. I went to several presentations in different forums by he-who-had-to-be-obeyed (not allowed to mention his name on here because he was a member of staff and we can’t criticise staff…) the mantra was always – look at all this mass of data. It showed that our target vote was (according to h-w-h-t-b-o) about 23% of the electorate. I pointed out several times that getting half of our target would be a major achievement. At the last such presentation I went to I just walked out. We are a political movement, not purveyors of snake oil.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Mar '18 - 3:59pm

    Our target vote should be the majority of say,reasonable and sensible,people, this is far bigger a per centage than we ever get, because this party is often not conveying that even when it is it .

  • Good on you,Tony. If more people walked out of more meetings……………

  • Bill le Breton 18th Mar '18 - 4:17pm

    Tony, I was going to use snake oil but thought I’d be modded. We shall see what happens when I press ‘post’.

    There is a very interesting post by Prof Wren Lewis here: – https://mainlymacro.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/a-road-to-right-wing-authoritarian.html and a comment by the Canadian economist Nick Rowe. They are ‘Gaming’ options by which Parties can increase vote share and gain election and then why and how conservatives can then move both rightwards economically and towards authoritarianism.

    How does this type of analysis apply to the Lib Dems? Looking back to the mid-Noughties: The Tories under a new leader Cameron wished for electoral purposes to campaign on more leftwards and more liberal (in summation towards a more central position) than under Howard – the media left this position unchallenged – Hug a Hoodie. (Upon election the Tories reverted towards the right economically and on some topics towards conservative social policies eg Bedroom Tax.) You can see that Blair also did this up to and then beyond 1997 – more liberal pre-election and then increasingly back to being more authoritarian.

    In the Lib Dem Leadership election of 2007, Nick Clegg and his team moved leftwards economically from his say 2005 pronouncements to win the 2007 leadership election. On winning he pulled back to the right economically (on Tax, student fees) and endeavoured to be more authoritarian (towards Conference and his management of the Parly Party). He repeats this move in the 2010 election (no student fee increases, Labour budget).

    Following the election, both the Conservative Leader and the Liberal Democrat Leader (assisted by the media) are able to harmonize around Cameron receiving support for both his move back to the right economically. NC finds encouragement for his economic conservatism. Cameron is returning towards his base, Clegg away from his. For Cameron this change does not bring any questions of mistrust. For the Lib Dems it does.

  • Peter Watson 18th Mar '18 - 4:43pm

    @Bill le Breton
    I guess voters have had many years to get used to that “bait and switch” tactic from Labour and Conservative administrations but it was deeply disappointing from Lib Dems who had promised a new kind of politics (and “no more broken promises” was probably the worst possible form of it).

  • Bill le Breton 18th Mar '18 - 7:17pm

    Peter, the point surely is that if you get elected on a false prospectus, you can only maintain your position by becoming more and more authoritarian. One’s proclaimed Liberalism is no guard to that.

  • Nick Cotter 18th Mar '18 - 8:13pm

    Tuition Fee Promise ….

  • In the early days of the coalition I attended a talk given by Prof Robert Hazell of UCL. He explained the concept of the unity-distinctiveness dilemma, and that junior coalition partners generally take the blame for failures whilst the larger partners tend to take the credit. From the early days, it was likely we would take a caning in 2015. For further info see
    http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/how-to-make-a-coalition-work-rhetoric-lessons-from-the-2010-15-government/

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '18 - 8:29pm

    There’s a general assumption that the Lib Dems going into coalition with the Tories in 2010 has been the main reason for the demise of the party’s fortunes in 2015. However, we’ve seen the same effect right across the EU in that centrist parties and social democratic parties have suffered dramatic declines in their fortunes.

    There are lots of similar articles along the lines of the one linked to below. I would argue also that the US Democrats lost the 2016 Presidential election because Hilary Clinton was considered too centrist.

    The political centre has been associated with the establishment for quite a time now. Go into any university, or large public organisation like the BBC, and by and large the political consensus will be centrist. Centrists only talk to other centrists in any serious kind of way. If a new phenomenon arises like the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party or the rise of Brexiteers on both the left and right the initial centrist groupthink tends to totally underestimate the challenge they can present. Jeremy Corbyn was meant to be an electoral disaster for Labour. The vote on the EU was confidently expected to be for Remain.

    So maybe some new thinking is needed?

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/29/right-social-democracy-dying-europe-afd-far-right-germany

  • So I am an absent minded professor ! Without the beard and sandals.
    Bring back the News Chronicle albeit as an internet version.

  • Bill le Breton 19th Mar '18 - 8:47am

    Chris Buck, the essay you link to is a good read. Here is an early paragraph:

    “The formation of the Coalition was facilitated by the ideological overlaps between Conservative modernisers and the Orange Book Liberal Democrats. While this enabled them to co-operate effectively in areas such as higher education and foreign policy, the parties’ ideological proximity made it difficult for the Liberal Democrats to preserve their distinctive identity. Differentiation is almost always a problem for the smaller party, but it is important for maintaining public trust. Consequently, the smaller party in a future coalition must be wary of sacrificing too many of its core values for the sake of government unity.”

    The point is compounded by By Clegg, Laws, Marshall et al’s desire to transform the policies AND values of the Liberal Democrats. The ‘New Politics’ mentioned in the essay was a big shift for the Lib Dems (in pursuit of an imagined new core vote) but was a contrivance for the Tories who were soon able to move on from this once they had seen the extent of the Lib Dem’s commitment and resolve to Unity.

    Internally within the Party, The Lib Dem leadership had little trouble making this shift, receiving support in Lib Dem Conferences and large majorities in the Lib Dem Parliamentary Parties (in H of C and H of L) for their policies and new positioning of the Party. Opponents of the shift were stamped down on, frozen out, (indeed encouraged to leave the Party) and ridiculed.

  • OnceALibDem 19th Mar '18 - 8:54am

    Worth remembering that the Lib Dems were already on the down before 2010 – before entering coalition the party had fewer councillors, MPs and MEPs than it had when Nick became leader.

  • Once a Liberal – It seems you are implying that the party was in continuous decline throughout Nick’s time of leadership. While it is true that we lost 380 councillors in 2009, and we were actually 5 MPs down in the 2010 election, it isn’t fair to simply say we were down on MEPs. True, we had only 11 MEPs in 2009, a reduction of one, but the UK as a whole had 6 less MEPs in that year, and taking that into account it was equivalent to a net gain of one.

  • Steve Griffiths 19th Mar '18 - 11:13am

    “Few predicted the extent of our demise “.

    Several of us did – regularly. We reminded you of that on this site, on the morning after the 2015 election. see threads passim…

  • David Evershed 19th Mar '18 - 11:56am

    Chris Wylie says he could find no demographic correlations for Lib Dems, but here are some.

    Lib Dem voters are to be found mostly among A,B socio economic groups and the better educated.

    14% of the Times and Financial Times readers vote Lib Dem but only 3% of Sun and Mirror readers.

    Source: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/how-britain-voted-2017-general-election/

  • I was one of those people that was ridiculed for opposing the coalition with the Tories. My former local Lib-Dem MP gently dismissed my concerns.

  • Bill le Breton 20th Mar '18 - 9:38am

    “Lib Dem voters are to be found mostly among A,B socio economic groups and the better educated.”

    No, this is not the case. You describe a fraction of the Lib Dem vote – pre-2010. But you accurately describe why the Party is presently supported by just 6 or 7% of the voting public.

    Since 2007 it’s central commanders have turned their backs on the other 16 or 17% of people who regularly supported the Lib Dems.

    Go on confining yourselves to this group (important though it is) of Liberal Idealists and you will remain politically irrelevant.

    Sorry David if this appears to be a criticism of you, but it just happened that you very clearly expressed why the Party is so ‘lost’.

  • As an ex-LDHQ staffer, I sat through a few of intern Chris’ presentations. Enthusiastic but ultimately little substance and much of his presentations were lifted from colleagues slide decks from previous months or years.
    He once gave a presentation on how we needed to change our brand colours as they reminded him of wasps – followed by wasp buzzing impressions and ended the meeting by shouting STING as we each left the room.
    A confident yet awkward chap that definitely wasn’t one of the aces in LDHQ during my time.
    Just because he’s stated the obvious to (in some cases) people who don’t listen, it doesn’t make him clairvoyant.

    On the flip-side – well done Chis for whistleblowing and C4 for the operation.

  • Paul Pettinger 20th Mar '18 - 1:10pm

    About half the people commenting on this thread were warning – in one way or another -that we were heading towards calamity

  • Phil Beesley 20th Mar '18 - 3:18pm

    David Evershed: “14% of the Times and Financial Times readers vote Lib Dem but only 3% of Sun and Mirror readers.”

    Times + FT circulation (630,000) multiplied by 0.14 = 88,200. That’s the number of people who vote in two or three constituencies.

    Sun + Mirror circulation (2.15 million) * 0.03 = 64,500. Or the same as the Times + FT given the margins of error. But there is less potential to increase number of votes in the Times + FT readership.

    I could argue that Lib Dem voting in the Times + FT circulation reflects the liberal instincts of well read or well educated people. But that line of thought suggests that readers of other newspapers are less amenable to liberal ideas; or implies that voters who left the Lib Dems in recent years have become less liberal.

    I like to believe (fool myself?) that I live in a more liberal society than voting stats and formal political allegiances suggest.

  • The sad thing is that you would have thought the party would have turned to those who correctly forecasted the devastation of the 2011 – 2015 years, for advice and how to at least stop the process. The are still not asking for our assistance and advice, instead stumbling along at 7% as if it is the world. The party is stuck in old ways, with old habits and distinctly white.

  • David Evans 20th Mar '18 - 7:37pm

    David Beckett – I fear that although the people making up the Party machine have been changed, largely through redundancy, the party machine itself hasn’t changed at all in the one area key to our future – there is still a total unwillingness to face the facts and learn lessons from our failures.

    As Tony Greaves pointed out, in coalition the party allowed itself to be guided (or misguided is probably more accurate) by a purveyor of snake oil, whose sole purpose seemed to be to collect lots of data until a way was found to ‘prove’ that the one thing that was destined to make things worse was to for us to change from what was clearly already a total failure.

    At meetings, when I questioned the conclusions with their author, I remember being told by attendees that my concerns were irrelevant because “It was inevitable …” or “the party has already decided” when of course neither was true and all they were doing was parroting the party line that “Resistance is futile” and “Change is impossible.” Indeed their views were almost akin to a nation, having held a referendum on a very contentious issue, choosing to ignore the worsening situation over a long period of time by saying “It’s all inevitable …” and “The country has decided …” while their hero casually drives the country over the edge of a cliff.

    It seems to be an trait among almost all political animals, including sadly many Lib Dems, that it is impossible to accept evidence that anything I believed in went wrong. Instead we look for reasons why it was what went on before that that failed even when it is clear that it was much better than what replaced it. It is almost impossible to envisage a more catastrophic and self destructive approach to organisational development.

    Thus we now have – It was targeting, It was too few women MPs (remember the infamous “Pale, male and stale”), It was we had the wrong type of voter (i.e. those who believed like me in a better way of doing politics and an end to broken promises) etc etc.

    However, it seems that the new party machine is still in denial of past mistakes. Now we have a Party Strategy based on the concept of a core vote, which is educated, pro European, interested in housing, the economy, and the environment, younger than average but even so on above average earnings. In other words, just the same as it was up to 2010. But the one thing it doesn’t consider is why did they leave us in droves over that period.

  • OnceALibDem 20th Mar '18 - 8:14pm

    I don’t see why people can’t mention Ryan Coetzee. After all he wasn’t a party staff member for a large portion of the time. Though curious why a neutral civil servant was attending meetings to discuss individual seat polls is curious.

  • Simon Banks 2nd May '18 - 10:02am

    That insight about personality traits and the basic attitudes that go with them is so important, especially now most of us agree we need to build a core vote, without necessarily interrogating what would characterise that core vote.

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