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

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.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East