What can the Lib Dems learn from the Tories digital campaigning?

During last year’s election, I took a brief secondment from my usual role to join the team at the political consultancy Datapraxis – this is where the relationship started that resulted in the Winning For Britain report I co-authored with Ian Kearns earlier this year, and that I know many in the party have found useful.

Another of the organisations I got to know during that time was Valent Projects and in particular its Director, Amil Khan. An investigative journalist and social media strategist, Amil was digging into what the Conservative Party was doing online – and what he was finding was fascinating, in two ways. First, there was some seriously questionable activity going on, which will surprise very few people. More importantly, though, they were using digital in some very different – and very smart – ways.

Since then, Amil has continued to dig. When official election spending data started to come out, the plot thickened. It seemed the Conservatives had actually spent significantly less – including £1m less on social media specifically – than they had in 2017, yet achieved far more. It was clear they were spending smarter, not just more. I knew Labour Together had asked Amil to do a quick take as part of their Election Review, so we got in touch with Hannah O’Rourke there and with Neal Lawson at Compass, to ask Amil to share what he had found more widely.

The resulting report, Power and Persuasion: Understanding the Right’s Digital Playbook, is published today and free to download from the Valent website. Neal and I are hosting a discussion with Amil, Hannah, Dr Kate Dommett from Sheffield University (author of another recent report on digital campaigning, for the Electoral Reform Society) and Paul Hilder, CEO of Datapraxis and one of Europe’s most experienced and widely admired progressive strategists. You can sign up for the event here.

By way of a snapshot in the meantime, the report is structured around eight key Conservative Party tactics, and five recommendations to progressives of all parties and none in response.

Two key insights frame the findings:

1. The Conservative Party won fewer than 330,000 additional votes in 2019 compared to 2017 – less than 0.7% of votes cast – yet won a landslide 80 seat majority. This suggests that they won votes in the right places to translate into seats, the result of highly effective targeting. 

2. The Conservative Party spent significantly less money in 2019 compared to its spend in 2017. This suggests that they have begun not just to spend more than other parties, but to spend smarter.

The eight key tactics used by the Conservative Party in 2019 are:

1. Nailing The Narrative: highlighting the fact that Boris Johnson’s approach had been developed for Theresa May by Lynton Crosby in 2017, but not used by her

2. From Top Table To God Pod: highlighting the shift in power over campaign strategy from politicians supported by admen to politicians led by digital campaigners 

3. Gathering Data: showing how the Conservative Party used early Facebook advertising, as well as an expansive approach to its privacy policy, to gather extensive data long before the campaign started 

4. Targeting: Who, What, When?: highlighting the tools – such as daily MRP polling and Facebook analytics – that allowed the Conservative Party to focus it’s digital spend where it would translate into seats, and when (including the fact that spend appears to have been heavily loaded at the end of the campaign) 

5. Building Local Skills: highlighting the role of digital agencies – who do not appear on the Conservative Party official election spending submissions – in supporting key candidates to develop their social media profile and effectiveness

6. Outriders: contrasting the difference in impact between progressive outriders such as Momentum and Novara with the highly targeted approach of Conservative outriders – and pointing out the lack of transparency as to the funding of many of these

7. Exploiting Broadcast: explaining the dynamics behind the Conservative Party’s use of broadcast media primarily as a means to generate content for social media

8. Counter Crisis With Disinformation: looking at the case study of the sick boy on the floor of Leeds Hospital in comparison to disinformation techniques used around the world

The five recommendations for progressives are:

1. Embrace persuasion: This is a way of using digital that the progressive movement hasn’t yet got up to speed with, and needs to

2. Invest time and energy in the narrative: Narrative development and message testing need constant work, and certainly work well before any election campaign period begins

3. Equip and empower local candidates with digital tools: Local parties should be a point of distinction for the progressive movement, but they need support

4. Supercharge the outriders: The progressive movement is an organic, diverse movement, not just a hierarchical monolith; that’s a huge strength, but only if we make it deliver

5. Make targeting a campaign obsession: Once the campaign period begins, knowing moment-to-moment what’s happening and whether it’s working and allocating resource appropriately now possible – and essential

I hope you enjoy the report, and that you’ll join us on Thursday.

* Jon Alexander is a member of the council of the Social Liberal Forum and of Sevenoaks, Dartford and Gravesham Liberal Democrats

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28 Comments

  • Putting all the clever computer stuff one one side, both the Labour and Lib Dem leadership lost it in December, 2019 because neither Mr Corbyn or Ms Swinson cut it as credible potential Prime Ministers….. though the latter claimed she was.

    Johnson, as you say, lost 330,000 votes….. but the ‘Oven Ready’ deal as he went into the fridge persuaded his core vote to mostly turn out….. because folk were fed up and wanted an end to the Brexit Saga.

    I could have told you that for less than £ 1 million, Mr Alexander. The rest is froth and a cottage industry in London and the Home Counties. I suggest you have a look at Scotland where the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems are endangered species. Find out what’s going on and why the Lib Dems are clinging on to fifth place.

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Dec '20 - 5:01pm

    Thank you for an interesting if, for some, a somewhat jargon heavy article!
    Might we also consider the horizontality of the corporate media “playing field”, not least “our” B. B. C.?
    Were Mr. Johnson and Mr. Corbyn treated equitably and/or objectively before and during the election?

  • John Marriott 9th Dec '20 - 5:27pm

    I agree entirely with David Raw. Politics used to be about ideas, ideals, passion and, to a far greater extent than today, HONESTY. Now it’s more about conjuring tricks and sleight of hand – chase the ace and avoid the Joker. It still amazes me how many people succumb to the kind of blandishments that appear at election time. What it usually boils down to is making greed patriotic, as the late Clive James wrote in his TV column in the Observer the Sunday after Mrs Thatcher won her first General Election in 1979 – the cynical; “What’s in it for ME?”

  • Jonathan Alexander 9th Dec '20 - 5:28pm

    Hi David – to some extent I agree, as you will find if you take a look at the SLF report “Winning For Britain”, by me and Ian Kearns…
    (here: https://www.socialliberal.net/winning_for_britain)
    But I would also point out that Boris Johnson clearly SHOULDN’T have cut it as a credible Prime Minister – yet the Conservative comms machine at least succeeded in making him out as the best of a bad bunch, which he arguably was not. Likewise the way to get Brexit off all our plates would arguably have been a People’s Vote. In other words, our raw material was bad, but so was theirs – and they made it work a LOT better.
    The fact that the Conservatives were able to dominate the framing of the election – and indeed continue to dominate the framing of the national conversation – is surely something worth understanding and learning from.

  • Jonathan Alexander 9th Dec '20 - 5:30pm

    Thanks @John Marriott – I think there might be a different way to frame things, as you will see if you join and/or sign up to email alerts from the Social Liberal Forum. Ian Kearns and I have another report coming on Saturday called Citizens’ Britain, with more than a small nod to Paddy Ashdown’s 1989 book of the same name… I’ll look forward to hearing what you make of that!

  • Jonathan Alexander 9th Dec '20 - 5:32pm

    @Steve Trevethan – you might want to check out Amil’s report – Tactic 7 gives a good outline of how the Conservatives managed to control broadcast media… it’s really quite mind-blowing.

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Dec '20 - 5:57pm

    Thanks to J. A!
    If a group or political party can manage to control our broadcast media,
    has our nation then ceased to be a democracy and been high jacked into being an oligarchy, quite possibly, a plutocracy?
    Might we and our party be well advised to highlight this fundamental change and do something about it?

  • Peter Chambers 9th Dec '20 - 7:57pm

    It appears Tory spending is more efficient than previously. However this appearance might also be explained by some Dark Money. Has this hypothesis been sufficiently tested?

  • The Social Liberal Forum ? It needs more than a few slick computer driven sleight of hand manipulations of the electorate if it is to be of any use.

    It needs fire in its belly and a real passion to do something about poverty and inequality in the UK. It needs to hold the the parliamentary party’s feet to the fire about the social consequences of the Coalition and to take up the Alston UN Rapporteur’s Report published last year. I know Ed Davey has a copy (I gave it to him, Jonathan), but has he read it yet ? And I’m sorry, but to visit Scotland just to visit a zoo ?????

    I suspect SLF will also need more than right wing Labour recent converts to the Liberal Democrat Party who have little knowledge of the history and traditions of the New Liberalism of Masterman, Rowntree, Hobson, Hobhouse, Beveridge and Samuel.

  • Katharine Pindar 10th Dec '20 - 1:34am

    I am not sure about ’embracing persuasion’ by digital means, Jonathan. Yes. we should enhance our skills to use digital tools, but the ethical requirements when using them are more likely, one hopes, to occur to ‘progressives’ rather than Tories, and that is a drawback that should I believe be accepted.

    ‘Nailing the narrative’. however, I agree with, and my friend David Raw is right to suggest that our narrative should embrace the need to fight poverty and inequality. It will give a real edge to our party if we agree to focus on the growing social injustice in this country, and distinguish ourselves from Labour in doing so by assuming the mantle of the great Liberal William Beveridge, and proposing a post-Covid Beveridge-2 Plan. The details of that will require work, to align and develop our policies within the narrative, but the commitment to it and the kind of passion we show in campaigning for it will do far more I believe to enhance our standing with the public than the clever tactics we will also develop, because the end result will be increased public good.

  • Jonathan Alexander 10th Dec '20 - 9:41am

    I suppose what I would to some of these comments is two things…
    1) The report as I read it at least makes no claim to be the “be all and end all” – there is no inference that progressives “would have won if only…” Rather, it is about understanding one aspect of what happened, and drawing what learnings we can. As Katharine rightly points out, “nailing the narrative” absolutely points us at the strategic challenges David hints at. I have a slightly different – but I believe complementary – perspective on what fills that hole… but that is for another conversation.
    2) The idea that persuasion per se is somehow underhand is to me a little strange. Maybe the language isn’t what we would prefer to use, but I think all that is being said is that digital and social media can and arguably must be used in a sufficiently sophisticated way as to engage in a conversation with people from where they are – not simply broadcast a position on the basis that people ought to agree, or only be the choir talking to and mobilising one another.
    A good conversation, though, and one I hope will continue at tonight’s event – link again just in case:
    https://actionnetwork.org/forms/power-and-persuasion-understanding-the-rights-digital-playbook/

  • Katharine Pindar 10th Dec ’20 – 1:34am……..distinguish ourselves from Labour in doing so by assuming the mantle of the great Liberal William Beveridge, and proposing a post-Covid Beveridge-2 Plan…………….

    Have you forgotten that it was a LABOUR government that implemented the recommendations of the original Beveridge plan; and a lot more..

    Changes for the better in social justice will not happen under a Tory administration so, unless you have a ‘cunning plan’ to gain another 300+ seats, closer co-operation with Labour is essential..

    Regarding the Tory use of social media, their setting up of ‘independent’ sites to attack Labour’s plans was laergely ignored by ‘our’ BBC whose poilitical editor often seemed to get her brief from CCHQ ( retweets of unfounded anti-Labour reports, ‘leaking’ postal vote trends, allowing Johnson to pick and choose his appearnaces/interviewer, etc. )

    However, we are where we are and a united opposition is needed to attack the blatant corruption and weakening of our independent justice and redress systems which, just one year into this administration, is more akin to a ‘banana republic’ than the ‘mother of parliaments’..

  • The problem with trying to learn from digital campaigns is the tendency of online activity to inflate confirmation bias. It is entirely possible to live in an online bubble of comforting agreement, with tailored adverts, algorithm generated content links and friends confirming each others beliefs on social media platforms. Tory voters seek out things that confirm their social attitudes. The idea that people go online with no pre-existing politics and are persuaded by content is a little naïve. IMO, Britain actually needs a liberal party that is not trying to be an adjunct to the two main parties. There are liberals and potential voters out there, but they are not yet concentrated in constituencies enough to make a big political dent. Having said that, the current situation is ripe for feeding on local discontent with the Conservatives and Labour. Keep reminding people how useless they are and hammer home the message that nothing will change unless they are replaced.

  • Katharine Pindar 10th Dec '20 - 11:40am

    expats. yes of course, I never forget that it was the post-war Labour government that carried out Beveridge’s plans. The point is that the plans themselves came from a Liberal, and the narrative I am proposing now is that the Liberal Democrats endorse and work on a new plan. Just as post World War 2, the public was glad to have a grand plan to put things right, so after Covid 19, the public seems likely to be glad of a new Beveridge-2 Plan to improve matters now. The Labour Party hasn’t got one, but if the next Labour Government wants to carry out the Plan (supposing the Tories won’t, of course) that is historically appropriate.

    Actually we shall need to campaign together, indeed, for the reforms that are needed, and should press them on the present government. I believe the public will want this, and the government may concede some things, probably the continuation of the Universal Credit increase to start with, to keep their voters.. But the Plan needs endorsing and working out by our party, since it doesn’t seem such an initiative is being planned by the Labour party today. I want our Spring Conference to accept it.

  • “progressive outriders such as Momentum and Novara”

    Momentum and Novara are not “progressive”, they are reactionary hard-left movements, always fighting the day before yesterday’s battles. They are not part of any progressive movement I recognise.

  • Katharine Pindar 10th Dec '20 - 12:24pm

    Jonathan, I wasn’t suggesting that persuasion per se is underhand. I was simply suggesting that is can be used in an underhand way, and the Tories are more likely IMO always to distort and misrepresent information than are progressive politicians such as ours. That said, of course some Liberal Democrat tactics are clever too, and many voters will say all politicians are as bad as each other. But I hope we will try for a higher moral standard, a genuine effort to be honest, in our persuasive tactics, and that we should be aware we may then possibly fail to convince as many voters as the Tories will do.

  • David Garlick 10th Dec '20 - 1:08pm

    good article.

    Have to smh at some of the responses

    Liberal Democrats a broad tent?
    No doubt about it.

  • Paul Holmes 10th Dec '20 - 2:29pm

    @Jonathan Alexander. One problem with this approach is that the Lib Dems went hook line and sinker for MRP Poll findings in June 2019 and as result hurled not just the kitchen sink but the bathroom and the whole house at those findings. The result was that record breaking levels of money were thrown at supposed Target Seats, which experienced on the ground campaigners said (correctly as it transpired) that we had no chance of actually winning.

    This wishful thinking was not confined to June 2019. A former Campaigns Department staffer who was active as a London volunteer in the GE told me that only a week or two before polling day in December, ‘polls’ were being circulated showing various seats within our grasp when we in fact came nowhere near. A Party employee in the North of England told me the same and President Pack’s public blog ‘bulled up’ similarly inaccurate ‘internal’ poll findings.

    What works for one of the two Parties that have dominated UK politics (and so the national consciousness) for a century, is not the same as what works for a small third or fourth Party under a FPTP system -however much money is thrown at online advertising. The ‘Air War’ has never delivered a seat for us without a major on the ground effort and credibility in a given Constituency.

    Plus of course those pesky ‘progressive’ voters do have a disconcerting habit of voting Labour in seats such as Cambridge and Sheffield Hallam, where polling analysis, big data and Core Voter strategies tell us they ‘should’ vote for us!

  • Peter Davies 10th Dec '20 - 6:43pm

    Social Media is good for targeting demographics on a non-geographical basis. There is a multiplier that comes from people sharing with similar people. Those similarities are partly geographical but much less so among our targets than those the Tories successfully hit. They also had the advantage that any leakage from their target seats was quite likely to end up in another target. We had a tiny number of targets and many of those we targeted were in a social bubble with people who had heard nothing from us.

  • What the Tories did was what Labour did (in a mainly offline world then) between 1997 & 2005. It’s just Facebook & email is much cheaper, quicker and customisable than snail mail.

    An effective message that builds a big enough coalition.
    “Get Brexit done” was genius. Obvious appeal to the Brexiteers and Labour Leavers who put aside doubts they had about voting Tory annoyed Brexit “wasn’t getting done”, they were going to make damn well sure it was going to be.

    And this would *not* have happened if Johnson had not been seen to move to the left on funding the police and hospitals with specific spending pledges.
    More importantly It widened the coalition. – weak remainers thought “yes – the country made its decision on Brexit, lets get on with it.”

    We narrowed ours – although we needed some 12%+ of leavers to win an individual seat.

    Message discipline & repetition
    The report says they had a “God Pod” – a very few (really just 1 or 2) central people ensuring the same message was repeated in everything that went out and their spokespeople repeated it on TV – very similar to the message discipline of Labour in ’97. In contrast our spokespeople like Umunna and Wollaston were erudite but convoluted.

    Communicate to the people that matter – swing voters in swing seats.

    Targeting particular voters isn’t new. We wouldn’t send the same target letters to a pensioner and a 18 year-old.

    It’s just that you can do it on Facebook with immense ease and precision and in many more segments – a woman in her 30s, a man in his 50s etc. etc.

    And one of the lessons of the report is that they sent out the same messages but marketed differently – say the background music and graphics – between say a man in his 50s and a woman in her 30s

    “You can’t fatten a pig on market day” – Lynton Crosby

    The report says the Tories spent £500,000 in August. And they particularly laid the groundwork with their more left-leaning spending pledges on police and hospitals as highlighted in Johnson’s speech on becoming PM.

    They then grew their opinion poll ratings at the expense of the Brexit party – “fattening the pig”. They couldn’t have entered the election campaign on level pegging with the Brexit party.

    I remember very little from Labour or us during August and the Autumn.

  • It’s a very interesting, and concerning report. What I’m not clear on is what the Libs Dems are actually supposed to do about it?

    While Tory direct spend on advertising might have been lower, there must have been significant other costs on digital agencies and infrastructure to make the whole campaign work. Financed how and by who?

    Facebook and email? You can only use them to influence those who you have opt-in permission to email, and/or are regular facebook users. You can snail mail and deliver Focus leaflets to every household in target seats.

    Message discipline – “Bollocks to Brexit” worked very well for us at the Euro elections in May 2019. Maybe if Jo had used her rare TV appearances to repeat that message over and over again, instead of apologising for the coalition, things would have gone better?

    But ultimately, are we prepared to stoop to Tory depths and employ the dark arts to win elections? Simply lie in targeted messages and drown out bad news with disinformation?

  • Jonathan Alexander 11th Dec '20 - 12:26pm

    Great to see this report generating such debate! The event with Compass last night resulted in some great discussion and ideas too – I will post the link to the recording in another comment as soon as I can. In the meantime, I did just want to point @Paul Holmes to the Winning For Britain report that I wrote with Ian Kearns earlier this year – in it, among other things, we explain that the problem was not the use of MRP per se, it was the fact that the way the party used MRP was completely inappropriate…
    Here’s the LD Voice piece we wrote on that report:
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/winning-for-britain-rebuilding-the-lib-dems-to-change-the-course-of-our-country-65926.html

  • @Nick Baird

    I suggest that all Lib Dem campaigners watch these two videos featuring Lynton Crosby
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_YareK6WKk
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1UGic5-Z0o

    (Several times!) And discover why we did so badly in 2015.

    It would have benefitted the Labour party if they had – because he explains how he and Boris defeated Ken in London on cheaper fares (although it was popular) by saying that it was expensive and would put the council tax up. Surely a tactic that they would never use again!

    People in Labour and on the progressive wing were very wary and dismissive of the Tories” use of Saatchi and Saatchi and advertising in 1979 and 1983. But Kinnock and Mandelson then started using marketing and advertising executives.

    And the similar arguments used to rage then about whether using advertising was “underhand” etc. and whether we shouldn’t be engaging the electorate in earnest Marxist dialectic or how to count an STV PR election – “1. Calculate your quota….” rather than selling politics like soap powder. Get real and start winning some elections.

    The key thing is that the medium is not the message! If it is cheaper, easier and better to send your message by carrier pigeon then use carrier pigeons!

    I don’t use Facebook but my understanding is that the whole of the rest of the Western world does (some 2 billion regular users!) and it gives you the tools within its advertising dashboard to target 30 year-old women who are single and live in Liverpool and like gardening and going to the gym etc. etc.

    If we don’t have any money then we need to use Facebook more. And one of the things that I ask everyone I canvass is can I have their email address to send them a local e-Focus and if you ask *everyone* at least a third will give them to you! And that’s free and zero effort. But the point about Facebook is that it’s comparatively incredibly cheap – if you think what a paper Focus costs. Now the downside is that indeed you don’t get to everyone and that has to be thought about (and I “know nothing”!!! about facebook!)

  • @Paul Holmes – whether MRP is good or bad I don’t know – but I suggest that it is about shoving something on a bit of paper and shoving it through someone’s letterbox or into their email inbox who is vaguely interested in the contents and might vote for us in a key area if they are so approached. I am sure that you like me have been told by older activists that so many leaflets, target letters, “labour squeeze leaflets” are a waste of time and you need the good old “election address” that tells people how the candidate will be honoured to serve on the allotment sub-committee if so prevailed upon! MRP may be rubbish but don’t dismiss it out of hand. Don’t fall into that trap!

    The debate here and about facebook reminds me rather of the one when I first started out as a campaigner that I had with older activists who were wary about using the phone as an unwarranted intrusion into people’s lives! So evaluate a tool carefully but remember that things can fail for a number of reasons – and I’d suggest that in 2019 our message was poor.

  • Paul Holmes 11th Dec '20 - 7:17pm

    @Jonathan Alexander – Yes I read it when you first published it.

    @Michael1 – MRP polling is not about Social Media advertising or putting bits of paper through letterboxes. It is a particular way of analysing polling results. This is then used to ‘spot’ the winnable seats for a given Political Party but, certainly for the Lib Dems was a failure in 2019. It has been a long established fact that, for us to turn a ‘good national feeling’ into FPTP success, we have to have a well known candidate and local reputation with a local campaign team capable of delivering a very strong ground campaign. The failure to capitalise on big national vote surges in 1974 and 1983 illustrated that long ago. So even if MRP analysis had accurately ‘picked winners’ for us in 2019 that still ignores the need for local credibility and campaigning ability.

    I am interested in your argument that Social Media advertising is ‘comparatively incredibly cheap’. For last years GE Labour spent £2M, Cons £1.5M and L Dems £1.3M on Social Media adverts. So it isn’t that cheap (plus of course the cost of the salaries of the Digital Team etc). Also, as you note not everyone is in fact on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok etc and many who are use Ad blocking software and so never see adverts (like all 6 adults in my immediate family circle). The various Social Mediaa companies also hype their supposed reach in their sales pitch by for example counting as an advertising viewer ‘hit’ a number of seconds viewing which for many is just long enough to read the title and hit delete.

    But yes you are correct, whatever communications methods are used you actually have to have a saleable message, something which the Lib Dems have failed on for the last 3 GE’s.

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