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Labour’s most powerful weapon: its digital campaign

Cooler, younger and tech savvy – meet the team led by Obama’s former digital strategist which Labour hopes will win it the election. 

Rapid responses and targeted messaging: Matthew McGregor. Photo: Micha Theiner/Eyevine
Rapid responses and targeted messaging: Matthew McGregor. Photo: Micha Theiner/Eyevine

In the sprawling control room of Labour’s headquarters at One Brewer’s Green, thrumming activity signals the party’s election machine cranking into gear.

The sleek, glass-walled Westminster office – a far cry from the shabby premises in nearby Victoria Street that the party departed two years ago – is branded with flashes of red: the chairs, intrays and mugs all stand out in Labour’s trademark vermillion.

Beyond the fieldworkers manning the phones and the suited apparatchiks handling the finances lies Labour’s most powerful weapon in next year’s election battle – its digital campaign team.

The online campaigners resemble the staff body of a Silicon roundabout tech start-up: a senior female staffer wafts by in harem pants and a slouchy cardy. As Labour MP Michael Dugher, who heads the party’s communications and day-to-day election campaigning, mused: “They look different – a lot cooler than the rest of us. And they’re younger.”

The casually-attired team comprise individuals from a variety of backgrounds: some are long-established Labour campaigners, some rose up through specialist web-based strategy agencies, others hail from NGOs.

The star of the team is Matthew McGregor, the Norfolk-raised digital strategist who rose to prominence as Barack Obama’s online attack dog in the 2012 Presidential race.

Leading the US President’s online “rapid response unit”, the “Backroom Brit”, as he became known, became a darling of the American liberal media and a scourge of the Republican party.

He pioneered real-time defence against the opposition – shooting down Republican claims on social media as soon as they appeared – as well as digital attack tactics.

Even more significant than his contribution to the Twitter propaganda wars was McGregor’s use of digital media to raise funds and recruit volunteers.

Thanks in large part to McGregor’s online strategy, the Democrats raised more than £400m through online donations in 2012, according to Time magazine, and their digital campaign mobilised an army of grass-roots activists. Now Labour chiefs have placed their hope in him to repeat the phenomenon in the UK in the run-up to the general election next May.

Although the party’s finances are strained, and debts loom large, Labour has invested heavily in building its digital strategy and hiring a top team.

It will likely prove a canny decision: although Labour raised more money than the Conservatives last year, the Tories look set to outspend Labour by as much as three times, according to recent press estimates. Labour has calculated, wisely, that online advertising has the potential to reach greater swathes of the population for less money.

Digital content created in-house can be produced by staff or volunteers for nothing, while a single motorway billboard can cost up to £2,500 for three months.

Dugher explained: “Digital is the big leveller. The Tories can get their voter ID by paying private companies to canvass on their behalf. But while they can outspend us, they can’t out-campaign us.”

He elaborated: “We’ll tweet a survey with a ‘donate’ button at the end and people click on it,” said Dugher. He declined to specify how much they have raised via online donations so far, but said: “We’re starting from a low base, but it’s working.”

Small donations made to the party by members was Labour’s largest source of funding in 2013, raising more than £8m; it is likely that the party’s emotive online campaign, and the ease of donating on the web, will lead to even higher revenues from small donations this year.

After the Conservatives’ fundraising gala ball last month, in which £45,000 was paid for a bottle of champagne signed by Margaret Thatcher and a Russian donor controversially bid £160,000 for a tennis match with David Cameron and Boris Johnson, Labour is desperately hoping grassroots donations increase.

McGregor is defensive about repeating for Labour his online fundraising success in America: “No we aren’t the US – we’re not going to raise a billion dollars online, but I don’t think we actually want a billion sloshing around in political campaigns.”  

The party is preparing for their own gala fundraising event on the muggy July afternoon that I visit their headquarters (the star bid at the auction turns out to be £24,000 offered for two football matches with Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor). The fundraiser, explains McGregor, is the reason he has thrown on “a suit for the first time in nine months”, a slate two-piece that matches his badger-like hair, adorned with a pink patterned tie.

Eschewing tech jargon, he explains how Labour’s online campaign will reap modest financial dividends. The key is to “connects the dots” for supporters – that is, provide past and potential donors a concrete example of how funds have been used previously, in order to nudge them to donate again to secure a Labour win in 2015.

A recent Labour video thanks the party’s 18,000 donors for their financial support, which funded the recruitment of 100 regional organisers. The clip introduces Maddy, a wholesome, beaming Labour organiser in Cambridge, whose hard work swept the city’s council to Labour in last May’s local elections, ending 14 years of Lib Dem control. The narrative is upbeat and rousing.

McGregor has a knack for masterminding content that goes viral, such as the deftly-edited clips of Mitt Romney slip-ups that he created in 2012. The emphasis is on innovation, and he has his team on the lookout for fresh formats in online political campaigns the world over, including in the US, Canada, France, Scandinavia and Australia.

Not all digital campaign innovations are easily replicable in the UK; parliamentary and legislative systems lend themselves less easily to online campaigning than presidential systems, such as the US and France. It is easier to frame a single narrative around a handful of personalities vying for the top job and sell it to an entire nation, than promote hundreds of constituency candidates to small segments of the population.

A report by the Hansard Society in 2010 warned that “online campaigning works better in some contexts than it does in others and this is particularly true for personality-led or issue-based campaigns.”

It noted, however, that this online trend for British political parties had the potential to change, particularly as “local and national representatives in the UK make everyday use of the internet to establish stronger links with supporters.” The report stated: “Digital campaigns are increasingly significant in electoral contexts.”

All political parties in the UK were late to exploit the power of the internet in campaigning. Although they began harvesting information from early-era internet forums as early as the late 1990s, online communications were viewed as inherently risky until recently.

Now all three of the main political parties are catching up on social media. With 145,000 followers on Twitter, Labour has 30,000  more than the Tories and more than double the Lib Dems, but with 180,000 followers on Facebook, Labour still trails the Conservatives by 60,000.

While small, these numbers align with other nations’ political parties’ presence on social media. In the US, for example, the Democrats have 317,000 followers, while the Republicans have 285,000, and the US population is more than four times that of the UK. The difference in the online presence of political leaders is striking, however: Obama has 44m Twitter followers, while David Cameron has not yet reached 730,000 and Ed Miliband trails on 330,000.

He is clear all content serves a specific purpose. “If we can be funny or entertaining, great, if we can move people with tales of those who’ve lost out under this Government, then great... But it’s important to think: what is digital for? Our end goal isn’t creating content. Our goal is to win votes and get Ed into No 10.”

The party has experimented with new tools to see how many people it can reach at once. Last November, the team tried out a new tool called the Thunderclap, which allowed the party to tweet the same message from almost 850 consenting activists’ Twitter accounts simultaneously. The tweet, which promoted Labour’s energy bill price freeze policy, reached 4.5m users, the party claimed.

McGregor explains that more often, however, tailored content is narrowly targeted at specific demographics. While some emails reach 100,000 subscribers; other infographics are aimed at just 5,000 target voters.

The platforms the team use also take into account the demographics of users. “People in their twenties and thirties are more likely to be on Twitter than people in their fifties. Teens are more likely to be on snapchat,” says McGregor. So is SnapChat next? “No… it’s something Senator Rand Paul did, which I thought was a bit bizarre.”

Labour also uses Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, AudioBoo - “an audio platform where you can post and share audio files – so clips of speeches, interviews, soundbites”, and Stackla – an “innovative way of sharing visual content”.

Ed Miliband shared his first Vine last month – a six-second clip of the Tour de France passing in Westminster. A senior source close to the Labour leader admitted to me: “Ed’s not particularly tech-savvy himself,” but impressed Miliband’s support for digital political campaigning: “He’s engaged with the campaign and what it can do.”

Given the correlation between youth and the adoption of digital technologies and social media, is Labour’s support base, which pollsters show is younger than the Tories or Lib Dems, reached more easily and effectively by digital campaigning?

“I don’t think that applies as much as it used to, the age thing,” says McGregor, shaking his head vigorously. “My mother sends me pictures of her grandkids on her iPad, posts pictures on Facebook.”

He is diplomatic about the digital campaigns being launched by the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. “I respect them both” he says.

He adds, however: “I think the Tories are determined to run a really nasty, negative campaign. I don’t think that’s what people want, whether that’s online or offline.” Pausing pointedly, he says: “That’s their call.”

McGregor built his reputation on digital attacks, however, so I ask him about Labour’s own negative online campaigning. “Negative?” he asks, before correcting me with a mischievous smile: “I think you mean ‘contrast campaigning’. I think it’s important that people hear what we have to say is wrong with the Tory government and explain the contrast between the way that Ed will lead and this Government will lead.”

So far Labour has been assiduous in sharing information that demonstrates, they claim, the Conservatives’ “broken promises” on the NHS, education and the economy.

Although ruthless online, McGregor’s virtual reputation belies an enthusiastic, expansive and good-natured manner in real life. While he is the big name in the digital strategy community, he remains a team player – frequently impressing the importance of collaboration in all online campaigns, and deflecting any praise onto his colleagues.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he does not believe digital campaigning can overtake traditional doorstep campaigning.

He explains: “There’s intrigue with online – it’s new and exciting, and new tactics and tools are coming out all the time. But ultimately the most persuasive engagement someone in the Labour party can have with a voter is knocking on their door and talking to them about the issues that matter to them and people on their street.

The virtual world should be a complement to reality; Labour’s digital campaign is not about “making sure people are bent over their smart phones all day – that’s not right”. Instead, says McGregor: “Often it’s about persuading people to turn their computers off altogether and hit the streets.”