Matt Cardy
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Believe it or not, but the Tories are running an energetic election campaign – you just can’t see it

The party is eschewing high-profile appearances in favour of targeted ads online. 

The 1959 contest between Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskell was Britain’s first true television election. First, Labour used the opportunity to drop its opposition to the existence of ITV, then four years old. Second, Labour showcased Gaitskell in a series of effective televised party political broadcasts, a format that was then less than a decade old. (They were overseen by a media-savvy young politician called Tony Benn.) In 2017, the Conservatives are fighting an equally innovative campaign – by getting rid of the voters. Theresa May has taken to speaking in front of carefully chosen crowds, then taking a few questions from selected media outlets, which are chosen in advance.

The temptation is to see this as a non- or a pseudo campaign – as the Prime Minister merely waiting for her healthy poll lead to translate into more seats. But that’s not right. Under the radar, the Conservatives are running a ruthless, effective attack operation. It’s just that many of us will never get to see it.

Why do Facebook and Google dominate the online advertising market? The answer is how much they know about their users – there’s not much value in showing baby milk commercials to the happily childless, after all. Political parties have long had a low-tech version of this strategy: recording party affiliations when out campaigning, so they know which doors to knock on come election day to get out the vote and where to send their leaflets. Now, they can use data on a much grander scale, through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the rest.

Read more: Will "dark ads" on Facebook really swing the 2017 general election?

The aim? To send the right messages to the right people. A happy side effect is that the wrong people – voters in rock-solid safe seats, the national media and opposition ­activists – might not see your message at all. Call it a subterranean campaign.

This is important because although targeted messages are powerful, they can backfire. Take Zac Goldsmith’s London mayoral bid in 2016. His team knew that the path to victory involved appealing to white, working-class voters in the suburbs who usually supported Labour, as well as affluent ethnic minorities who had voted for the Conservatives in 2015, allowing the party to extend its hold on seats such as Harrow East and Croydon Central.

In an attempt to appeal to the former group, Goldsmith’s team ran a nasty dog-whistle campaign against Sadiq Khan, who is a Muslim, linking him to Islamic extremists. At the same time, to keep ethnic-minority voters on side, it played up Goldsmith’s support for Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister. The Goldsmith team also warned that Khan “supports a wealth tax on family jewellery”, a message aimed at those of Indian descent.

These messages were effective with their target audiences, if unpleasant. Goldsmith performed better than Boris Johnson in council wards with large Hindu populations and those with white, working-class voters worried about diversity. But he did significantly worse than his predecessor in wards with large numbers of non-religious voters, liberals and educated professionals. The result was defeat.

Goldsmith’s problem was that his target voters weren’t the only ones who saw the messages he was sending. The jewellery claims appeared on printed leaflets and the accusations of extremism were made in the London Evening Standard. They became part of a wider conversation about whether Goldsmith was running a “racist” campaign – something that clashed with Londoners’ perceptions of themselves and the values of their city.

That’s why the Conservatives’ campaign is so intriguing. Theresa May has a big audience – just not the one in the room. The American strategist Jim Messina, who is working on the May campaign as he did on David Cameron’s in 2015, is fond of saying that the average person thinks about politics for just four minutes a week. These are the people the Conservatives are targeting, and their preferred routes are broadcasters, local newspapers and social media.

On the radio, two broadcasters matter most. The BBC uses the same news clips across its music stations. The other key broadcaster is Global, which owns the bulk of Britain’s most successful commercial stations, including Classic FM and Capital, but most important of all, Heart, which has more listeners than any other private network, including in the crucial battleground of the West Midlands. This strategy has been supplemented by full-page wraparound adverts in local papers – in effect, putting a Conservative poster in every newsagent in every marginal. Critics argue that the design of these does not distinguish them as adverts, but cash-strapped local ­papers cannot afford to be choosy.

Meanwhile, Facebook and other social media websites operate under far looser rules about acceptable content than the broadcasters do, which allows the Tory campaign to run vicious attack videos against Jeremy Corbyn that would never be broadcast on national television.

As a result of all this, the Conservatives are fighting a campaign that is national in name only. Although the central themes – the solidity and strong leadership of Theresa May and the risk of a Corbyn government – are universal, the precise message is tailored to target voters. It also remains safely hidden from the scrutiny of the national media, on citizens’ computers and in their local press.

Labour is also bypassing the conventional media wherever possible and is paying close attention to the pro-Corbyn “alt-left” websites, as well as Facebook pages. However, it is also doing something that might soon be considered rather antiquated: letting Jeremy Corbyn meet voters as he tours the country.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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The overlooked aspect of patient care: why NHS catering needs a revolution

The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

A friend recently sent me a photo from her hospital bed – not of her newborn baby, sadly, but her dinner. “Pls come and revolutionise the NHS” the accompanying text read, along with a plaintive image of some praying hands. A second arrived the next morning: “Breakfast: cereal, toast or porridge. I asked for porridge. She said porridge would be ‘later’. Never arrived. (sad face).”

Contrast this with the glee with which another friend showed me his menu at a Marie Curie hospice a few weeks later. He seemed to have ticked every box on it, and had written underneath his order for syrup sponge and custard: “extra custard please”. It wasn’t fancy, but freshly cooked, comforting food that residents looked forward to – “like school dinners”, he sighed, “but nice”.

To be fair, though budgets vary significantly between hospital trusts, a reliable estimate suggests £3.45 per patient per day as an average – only slightly more than in Her Majesty’s prisons, though unlike in prisons or schools, there is no legally enforceable set of minimum standards for hospital catering. As Prue Leith writes in the foreword to a 2017 report by the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, “this means hospital food is uniquely vulnerable to a race to the bottom in terms of food quality, and patient care”.

Plate after plate of disappointment is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb, but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process. Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay, especially as figures released in February suggest the number of hospital deaths from malnutrition is on the rise. According to Department of Health findings last year, 48 per cent of English hospitals failed to comply with food standards intended to be legally binding, with only half screening every admission for malnutrition.

The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s report, meanwhile, revealed that only 42 per cent of the London hospitals that responded to its survey cooked fresh food for children – even though the largest single cause of admissions in five-to-nine-year-olds is tooth extraction. Less than a third of respondents cooked fresh food for adults.

Once the means to produce fresh meals are in place, they can save trusts money by allowing kitchens to buy ingredients seasonally, when they are cheaper. Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard, recently tasked by the Love British Food organisation to cook their annual lunch on an NHS budget, explained that this, along with using cheaper cuts and pushing vegetables centre stage, allowed him to produce three courses rather than the two he’d been asked for. Delicious they were, too.

Andy Jones, a chef and former chair of the Hospital Caterers Association, who was there championing British food in the NHS, told me the same principles applied in real healthcare environments: Nottingham City Hospital, which prepares meals from scratch, saves £6m annually by buying fresh local ingredients – “I know with more doing, and voices like my small one shouting out, we will see real sea change.”

Unusually, it’s less a question of money than approach. Serving great hospital food takes a kitchen, skilled cooks and quality ingredients. But getting every hospital to this point requires universal legal quality standards, like those already in place in schools, that are independently monitored.

Nutrition should be taken as seriously as any other aspect of care. The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge