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

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

***

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

***

 

Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster