The political obsession with data-crunching digital gurus lacks imagination and ambition

Will appointing campaign strategist Jim Messina make a radical difference to the Conservatives' election chances? Probably not - the old-fashioned art of voter persuasion is on the wane.

The recruitment of Jim Messina, the US Democratic party campaign strategist, to work for the Conservatives has been reported as a medium-sized earthquake in Westminster. Only in mid-summer do backroom appointments (and in this case part-time, remote-working-from-Washington appointments) register so high on the journalistic seismograph. No doubt that is why the story came out when it did.

I would hazard a guess that a very senior Tory with intimate knowledge of his party’s election plans handed the Messina scoop to Newsnight, deliberately piping out some campaign mood-music to give the impression that the Tories are on the march. Just as important, it provokes chatter about the comparative un-readiness of Labour’s own election campaign team. Ed Miliband has yet to name the person who will coordinate his party’s 2015 bid for power. Plenty of Labour people would have loved to be able to boast of hiring someone of the calibre of Messina – someone with a record of delivering big victories and, better still, with the imprimatur of Barack Obama. The US President remains the object of fawning fandom among many British politicos.  

It is far too early to say whether Messina can help steer the Tories to a parliamentary majority. Campaign officials can only ever be as good as the candidates they help promote. The fundamentals of the 2015 race haven’t really changed. One thing I do find interesting, however, is what the cult of the A-List strategist says about the nature of political competition. An essential part of Messina’s craft – the skill set around which his reputation is built – is the exploitation of masses of data. One crucial way he helped Obama was by finding and logging as many people as possible with any kind of Democratic inclination and making sure they were contacted, cultivated and steered towards a ballot paper.

Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ other big money campaign appointment, may not rely so heavily on technology but his underlying strategic technique is similar. It is all about expanding and energising the pool of predisposed believers. Crosby’s approach is to make absolutely sure that people who vaguely agree with the Tories on core issues – the economy, crime, immigration – are afraid enough of Labour to act on polling day.

There is nothing new about making sure a party’s base is locked in before going after swing voters. But it seems that, with richer data sets showing where sympathetic prejudices might be found, the balance of effort shifts towards mobilisation by fear; away from conviction. Parties seem more interested in mining every last drop of their existing support than in reaching out to voters on the other side.

Up to a point that might be a rational use of resources. It is easier to provoke a prejudice than it is to change a mind. People will select facts that match their opinions rather than allow new facts to alter their view. The spread of social media has probably amplified this problem, as people eagerly reinforce each other's beliefs in tribal enclaves. It sometimes feels as if Twitter and Facebook are vast experiments in what behavioural psychologists call confirmation bias.

It is also notable how few front line politicians in Britain have a record of really changing minds. The standard route to the upper echelons of a party is to secure a safe seat with the help of a grand patron. Leadership elections are competitive but the need to prove credentials to the party faithful is not always a great preparation for winning the hearts of non-aligned voters. More often it is an impediment. David Cameron and Ed Miliband both spend more energy managing the question of their respective Tory and Labour authenticity than they do picking up new converts.

It is almost impossible to now imagine a shift in allegiance by 2015 equivalent in scale to those achieved by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Inevitably there will be a swing, but there won’t be anything that feels like a mass conversion. The current obsession with data-crunchers, digital gurus and hired strategic guns feels like a surrender of imagination and ambition. It is as if the object of the exercise is now fishing around behind the sofa for misplaced voters with friendly biases because leaving the house and inspiring a whole new set of voters, reversing hostile biases, is just too hard. I suspect we will hear a lot in the next 18 months about the new science of winning campaigns while seeing ever less of the old-fashioned art of persuasion. 

Jim Messina speaking at last year's Democratic National Convention in the US. Photo: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Is Britain about to leave the European Union?

A series of bad polls have pro-Europeans panicked. Are they right?

Is this what Brexit looks like? A batch of polls all show significant movement towards a Leave vote. ORB, a phone pollster, has Leave up four points to 46 per cent, with Remain’s leave cut to four points. ICM’s online poll has Leave up three points, putting Brexit ahead of Remain by 52 per cent to 48 per cent once don’t-knows are excluded. ICM’s phone poll shows Leave up six points, a Brexit lead of three points.

That two phone polls are showing advances for Leave are particularly significant, as telephone polling has tended to show lower figures for Brexit. There is a lively debate over which method, phone or online, is likely to be more effective at predicting the referendum, although no-one knows for certain at the present time.

In any case, whether on the telephone or the Internet, the latest polls have pro-Europeans worried, and Brexiteers jubilant. Who’s right?

There are reasons to start trusting the polls, at least as far as voter ID is concerned

So far, the performances of the political parties in local elections and by-elections has been about par with what we’d expect from the polls. So the chances are good that the measures taken post-2015 election are working.

Bank holidays are always difficult

I would be deeply cautious of reading too much into three polls, all of which have been conducted over the bank holiday weekend, a time when people go out, play with their kids, get wasted or go away for a long weekend. The last set of bank holiday polls gave Ed Miliband’s Labour party  large leads, well outside the average, which tended to show the two parties neck-and-neck.

Although this time they might be more revealing than we expect

One reason why the polls got it wrong in 2015 is they talked to the wrong type of people. The demographic samples were right but they were not properly representative. (Look at it like this – if my poll includes 18 actors who are now earning millions in cinema, I may have a representative figure in terms of the total number of Britain’s millionaires – but their politics are likely to be far to the left of the average British one percenter, unless the actor in question is Tom Conti.)

Across telephone and online, the pollsters talked to people who were too politically-motivated, skewing the result: Ed Miliband’s Labour party did very well among young people for whom Thursday night was a time to watch Question Time and This Week, but less well among young people for whom Thursday is the new Friday.  The polls had too many party members and not enough party animals.

But the question no-one can answer is this: it may be that differential turnout in the European referendum means that a sample of hyper-politicos is actually a better sample than an ordinary poll. Just as the polls erred in 2015 by sampling too many political people, they may be calling the referendum wrong in having too many apolitical people.

These three polls aren’t the scariest for Remain released today

IpsosMori released a poll today, taken 15 days ago and so free from any bank holiday effect, without a referendum voting intention question, but one taking the temperature on which issues the British public believe are the most important of the day.

Far from growing more invested in the question of Britain’s European Union membership as the campaign enters its terminal phase, concern about the European Union has flatlined at 28 per cent – within the margin of error of last month’s IpsosMori survey, which put Britain at 30 per cent. The proportion who believe that it is the biggest single issue facing Britain today also remains static at 16 per cent. Evidence of the high turnout necessary to avert Brexit seems thin on the ground.

Pro-Europeans should be further worried by the identity of the groups that are concerned about the European Union. Conservative voters, the over-65s and people from social grades A (higher managerial, administrative and professional workers) and B (intermediate managerial, administrative and professional workers), are more concerned about the European Union than the national average. The only one of those three groups that is more likely to favour Remain over Leave are ABers, while Conservative voters and the over-65s are likely to vote for Brexit over the status quo.

Among the demographics who are least concerned about the European Union, the only pro-Brexit group that is significantly less concerned about EU membership than the national average are people from social grades D (semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers) to E (state pensioners, casual workers and jobseekers). The other groups that are least concerned with the European Union are people who live in urban areas and people aged from 18 to 24, the two most pro-European demographics.

The prospects of a Brexit vote are rather better than the betting odds would suggest. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.