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Events, Dear Boy: Our Learnings from the 2017 General Election

What did the 2017 election teach us about digital campaigning, and how should we rethink our concepts of event, narrative and engagement in contemporary political discourse?

So what did we learn from the UK general election in 2017? Etic played a part working alongside national, local and individual actors keen to take the opportunity to work for candidates, a party and a mission to bring change through participatory democracy. Our technical expertise and advice were put at the disposal of these actors and we learned something about campaigning, campaigners and ourselves but most importantly — the public.

Obviously all, or at least most, of these lessons have been learned before which is why I preface this blog with a perhaps apocryphal quotation from Harold Macmillan, the UK Prime Minister between 1957 and 1963. If ever a campaign and a Prime Minister have fallen prey to events Theresa May MP in June 2017 was that person.

First of all there was the matter of campaigning in the modern era with a particularly sharp eye on the Electoral Commission spending guidelines and perhaps even more important an over elaborate and entirely defensive concern not to do anything that might attract adverse criticism. At least that was our perception of the voice(s) from the Left. Self censorship was and is the order of the day with an approach to campaigning that closely resembled the efforts of modern ‘digital’ campaigning by charitable undertakings. If more stringently self-policed, given how frequently charities have been found guilty of one or another data driven malfeasance in the UK of late. The most telling aspect of all of this is the extent and degree to which several actors found themselves unable to engage with or simply ignoring some of the things that were going on. Parallel to this development was the really imaginative and productive work of individuals and small groups who gave themselves permission to act in any number of ways and act quickly — something that the more established actors were simply incapable of doing. Hierarchical management structures, policies and strategies of a defensive nature, a perceived need to include the lawyers in production schedules and a passion for the institution not the outcome all worked to ‘professionalise’ and hence limit activities.

This small ‘c’ conservative behaviour on the organised left we could not help but observe was in direct contrast with, for example, the ubiquity of some UK national papers in flooding particular parts of the Internet with weaponised messaging directed at the SNP in particular. It was strategic, large scale, cost a good deal and as events suggest possibly highly effective. Presumably non of that activity would be covered by the Electoral Commission, despite its highly partisan, closely targeted and campaign specific nature. We saw other examples of highly sophisticated market interventions; with one, strategies to drive the cost of specific Facebook advertising purchases, we found for the first time evidence of dynamic and interactive political ‘warfare’ during a campaign. All this was very interesting to us but the core lesson of the campaign came down to two related phenomena.

First of these, in our opinion, is of course — events. This was the first time we had attempted to manage sufficiently large Social Media and other information sources and feeds to monitor events and more importantly to look at them locally. As most of you will know Twitter does not support usage of geolocation information from the public Twitter Feed and nor does the terms of service for Facebook create an environment in which the political observer can readily create or access a specific social geography without paying for advertisements. Nevertheless we were able to develop information sources which greatly aided us in monitoring the implications of ‘events’, both to identify them and their impact in the communities we were concerned with. As an example the scale of the ‘Dementia Tax’ event was visible with 24 hours and reported for use by those visiting the doorsteps in the North West for ‘use’ within 48 hours.

It is not always clear what the true nature of an event is, or how best to engage with the public mood concerning them, but we were able to watch how individuals and groups wrestled with creating and advancing their narratives in almost real time. This process involved the Labour Party a little, or so it seemed to us and the Conservative party hardly at all, or so it seemed to us. Outside of the ‘official’ parties and their immediate surrogates, all manner of actors were fiendishly busy and above all quick to act. War-rooms were set up in short order and technically skilled and imaginative people created video, memes, software and entire campaigns within days. So here is a lesson that researchers in academia have been pointing for some time — the monopoly of formal political parties on campaigning — even on their own behalf, is breaking down. Issue based politics is driving the voice of political activism away from orthodoxy and monologue, especially when the issues can change from hour to hour.

The political stratagem of ‘managing the narrative’ by whatever means, has become difficult and under some conditions e.g. a short political campaign potentially impossible. It is all too easy to blame the poor showing of the Conservatives on their attempt to use their dominant position to impose a particular form upon the campaign. But such an approach was no less than conventional wisdom under the circumstances. Once upon a time their initial standing in the polls and the hegemony of the national press in advancing their cause one way or another, should have been enough. The lesson here is not so much about the youth vote being marshalled for Corbyn, but the fact that whereas Newspapers and TV cannot ‘deliver’ the youth vote (if they ever could) other avenues for informing and recruiting the young are now a significant aspect of ‘normal’ politics. Something that all ‘normal’ politicians will ignore at their peril in future.

This brings me to the last and most important lesson we learned from this campaign and one which we are going to be very concerned with in the months to come. Again, it is important to remember that this lesson has been in clear sight for some time but nonetheless we and others have been guilty of ignoring the implications. During the campaign we were contacted again and again by people who wanted to ‘do’ something. Similarly we were contacted by people who were ‘doing something’ but thought we could help them to decide what that something should look like to garner maximum effect. We contrast this with our contact(s) with campaigning professionals who in large part placed most emphasis upon getting donations to help them get on with the serious job of ‘fighting’ an election. In short the dominant model we came across from ‘organised’ and organising ‘normal’ political activists was top down and centrist, inclusive only to the extent of providing a (very) limited repertoire of actions for new recruits and primarily concerned with the election as an end in and of itself. This last point is perhaps best exemplified by the marketing manager for a significant campaign actor when he said ‘what we are concerned with right now is their donations not their engagement’. That kind of pragmatism was felt to be part of the revealed truth of the situation as they saw it. In a matter of days the inadequacy of that formulation of the situation was all too apparent. A battle had been fought and to a degree won, but the war was never going to be settled by the election and the truth of that conviction is now plain for all to see.

So what is the lesson here? The future lies in campaigning for an end that makes sense to the participants and not an election that makes (or breaks) careers. By which we mean that it is easier and more productive in this era to recruit people to act and go on acting based on their convictions and concerns that is to constrain them to the act of voting. At the outset we were acutely aware of the research that shows that ‘people are continually managing their self-concepts, seeking to assume or affirm valued personal identities.’ People prefer to see themselves as voters and not simply a vote. To put this in even more concrete terms, we found people who wanted to take part by taking action — not just ‘giving’ a vote. The extraordinary moment came for us when a physically disabled person handed over to us the fruits of her many hours of labour as an Internet researcher on our behalf and revealed that not only had she made a unique and significant contribution but she had found others who were willing to do the same. Her ingenuity and application had found a route to take action in her circumstances and her success had served to motivate others. We offer this as an example of the difference that working alongside people can make to the success of campaigning. Especially when contrasted with the worldview that treats people as votes. Votes to be accessed by well run organisations designed to accumulate votes and not voters, election victories and not socially meaningful and enduring campaigns. As we said, this is not novel but then it often takes practical experience to bring understanding from knowledge.

In our next blog we will expand on the models for organising, campaigning and conversing that we experienced either directly or in communication with others over the weeks of the 2017 General Election. Subject to the various NDAs and other privacy agreements we are party to we also intend to elaborate somewhat on the work we were involved in and where we think it will go next. Finally, we are a research group and are very interested in the stories of others. If you’d like to share with us your own projects and involvements with the election, please get in touch at team@eticlab.co.uk

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