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

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.