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Cleo Watson reveals the dark arts of electioneering

In How to Win a Campaign, the former Boris Johnson aide gathers wisdom from Dominic Cummings and other political puppeteers.

By Rachel Cunliffe

If you occasionally still get traumatic flashbacks about the political chaos of the past seven or so years, this podcast is not for you. As a general election looms, Cleo Watson cheerfully reminds us that “none of us will be able to escape” the inevitable onslaught of political messaging.

Watson should know – before she started writing salacious novels about Westminster, she worked for the Vote Leave team and on the 2017 and 2019 Tory election campaigns. She’s apparently still on good enough terms with Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings that he’s agreed to share his secrets. “You’ll hear quite a lot more from him throughout this series because, although he doesn’t tend to speak to the media much, he did agree to speak to us,” she teases. Yes, because what we all need in our lives right now is more Dominic Cummings.

It isn’t just Cummings sharing his infinite wisdom. We hear from Ayesha Hazarika (a Labour campaigner of the Brown era), Craig Oliver (the Cameron adviser who led Remain), James Schneider (co-founder of Momentum, responsible for Corbynmania), Keir Starmer’s former deputy chief of staff Chris Ward (who sincerely tells us the key to Starmer’s winning leadership bid was “to make it about personality”), and many more.

They are full of insights that will also strike nostalgia in your hearts: Schneider recalls organising Corbyn rallies outside hustings during the 2015 Labour leadership race (“roads would be blocked, people would be hanging off trees”), while Cummings boasts that if you deliberately provoke your opponents “you’re almost guaranteed to get the other side to spin out and be demented about it”, which just makes your messaging stronger (£350m on the side of a bus, anyone?).

Watson warns us that it’s only by going behind the scenes of political campaigning that we can learn to resist. Once we are taught the dark arts – hacking the algorithms of social media, focus-grouping slogans, harvesting data to target us in ways we can’t imagine – we’ll be immune to their power. That’s how it works, right? Right?

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How to Win a Campaign
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[See also: Ed Balls and George Osborne’s banal centrism]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power