Show Hide image

The Vote Leave campaign wasn’t as clever as it thinks it was

I tried to use Brexit wizard Dominic Cummings’ magic voter database, and it wasn’t all that.

A crack team of physicists, led by a divisive but brilliant former government adviser gone rogue, create an incredible computer programme to singlehandedly defeat the sinister forces of the establishment – reality or the storyline of my rejected screenplay, NCIS: Nuneaton?

Dominic Cummings, director of the Vote Leave campaign, has written a blogpost about how his campaign hired physicists to use data and build software, giving them the edge over the competition, or in his own words: “The campaign had to do things in the field of data that have never been done before.”

He also made available the system they used to do this – the “Voter Intention Collection System”, or VICS, which I decided to take a closer look at.

What was VICS really? At its simplest, it was a website for Vote Leave volunteers. They could use it to print off lists of voters, so they could knock on doors and ask how they were planning to vote. They then entered that information back onto the website. Yep, that’s it.

If that sounds a little underwhelming, then you’re not wrong. Indeed, evidence in the code suggests that VICS was built by a Leeds digital agency with no physicists on staff at all. So what sets it apart from what the Stronger In campaign were doing? Or from what the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems did during the general election? Erm, nothing at all, unfortunately. This kind of software has been about in one form or another since the late Eighties.

Where’s the much vaunted secret sauce? The modelling, the big data, the digital ad wizardry? We can piece some of it together from Cummings’ blog, comments in the media and on Twitter, and VICS itself.

On modelling, Cummings says: “Data models helped us target the ground campaign resources and in turn data from the ground campaign helped test and refine the models”. This is where your data scientists (and, presumably, their knowledge of quantum mechanics) come in.

Reading between the lines, they did some polling and used it to predict how likely each voter in the country was to vote Leave, which they then tested with what they were hearing on the doorstep. Just like the Stronger In campaign, the major parties, and many large companies have been doing for the last few years. Next.

Targeted digital advertising is another little-understood but much-hyped campaign technique. Cummings reports that using their models and Facebook, “We ran many different versions of ads, tested them, dropped the less effective and reinforced the most effective in a constant iterative process.”

Now I agree, this does sound pretty tricky. Luckily for us, Facebook’s ad software does it automatically for you.

Most interesting, however, is some of the data left in VICS after its hasty publication, which includes a file describing how many electors the campaign spoke to in each constituency. I can’t vouch for its veracity as it may well be an earlier snapshot or otherwise incomplete, but based on my experience working with this kind of data, it looks like a plausible set of numbers, and it’s pretty sobering.

It suggests that the Vote Leave campaign contacted 120,621 voters over the course of a year, less than 0.3 per cent of the electorate. According to the data available in VICS, in key Leave regions across the north of England – which accounted for nearly a quarter of the Leave vote – there were 8,880 conversations in total, and the median across all constituencies was just 31. (By comparison, the major parties would hope to see at least 1,000 conversations per week in a competitive battleground seat approaching a general election.)

These figures cast doubt on the campaign’s claims of having over 12,000 activists out canvassing every week in the last ten weeks of the campaign. Finally, looking across the country at all the voters the campaign spoke to, just four in ten were Leave supporters, a figure that raises questions about the final quality of the campaign’s targeting efforts.

None of this is to diminish VICS itself, or the volunteers who dedicated their free time to the campaign. I’m sure their efforts had an impact. The campaign was undoubtedly well-run, but it wasn’t nuts and bolts-like data or direct mail that did it – doing these things only makes a difference on the margins, which can be cancelled out if the other side is equally savvy.

The real power of Vote Leave’s campaign was that it tapped into the British public’s discontent with the status quo, and crafted a message that resonated with people from Carlisle to Penzance. But it’s crucial that we properly scrutinise claims made by campaigns about how clever they are, even if they do win.

Joshua Carrington is a former Labour staffer. You can follow his tweet-by-tweet trial of VICS on his Twitter timeline, @jshmrtncrrngtn.

Show Hide image

After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

0800 7318496