May 4, 2008
Selling pre-packaged opinions is part of my trade. You know when you’re at a dinner party and the political discussion is at the level of assertion – when people are merely repeating sentences at each other without any form of engagement? Well, that’s what I do. I sell those sentences, those forms of proto-opinion that are far too common around the dining tables of Britain. How does it work? It depends on three factors: the relationship between an opinion and a person’s own interests, the form in which the opinion is received and the number of times it’s repeated.
Of these factors, repetition is by far the most important – people can be persuaded to act against their own interests if they hear the same opinion frequently enough without anything to counter it. Just look at my aunt – a former left-winger in the grand Grant clan tradition now, after ten years of repeated exposure to the Daily Mail, believes immigrants are taking over the country and there’s a Muslim waiting in every shadow.
I find the process of opinion-forming fascinating, and this election has provided many wonderful examples of the art. By far the best-conducted campaign has been by the Evening Standard – the form and content of their opinion-forming has been simply superb.
For example, the Standard ran an analysis of Paddick’s policies about a week before the election. On his plan to switch the management of the Tube to a concession model, the paper wrote: “This would only add another level of bureaucracy. The unions would have a fit.”
In the mind’s ear, you can hear people repeating those sentences back to you across the dining table. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have anything to do with the policy, it only matters that they’ve been associated with it. This is the end goal of politicians’ soundbites, the focus of the messaging of our literature – to lend the listener or reader an easily embedded opinion. It’s about identifying whose interests will be best satisfied by which opinion, then using an appropriate form to transmit it repeatedly. But this is a game played at every level – every single person has their own interests and their own need to communicate them with others. Unlike what some Marxists would have you believe, the populace are not generally docile and receptive to the opinions of the intellectual elite. They’re players too.
Now that I’ve given a explanation of what I’m talking about to those of you who don’t spend all their time trying to mindfuck the voters, what went wrong with the Lib Dem campaign in London?
The slightly glib answer is that we were heavily squeezed between Boris and Ken. But why did this have to be the case? Are there things which could have been carried out differently which may have changed the final result? I don’t believe we ever could have won – but we could have and should have polled higher than we did. What went wrong?
Put simply, I think we failed to take into account the role of particular interest groups in this election, and the way in which our opponents were able to portray them as being uniquely under threat unless they cast their ballot for Boris or Ken. ‘Opponents’ doesn’t just refer to our political opposition – there were multiple political actors who had influence over this result. Let me give a couple of examples.
A large part of our vote comes from slightly better off public sector employees – people like teachers, junior managers and their ilk – the sorts of people who don’t fully agree with Labour’s policies, but aren’t vicious enough to vote Tory. During this campaign, the workers in the many and varied quasi-public sector organisations nominally under the control of the Mayor – like Transport for London and the London Development Agency – were told by UNISON, PCS, and the other unions that if they didn’t vote for Ken Boris would embark upon a purge as soon as he entered power. We had a significant number of people who may have otherwise voted for us with a strong economic incentive to vote for Ken. How did we attempt to counter this? We did nothing – indeed, we allowed our opponents (see above) to portray our policies as almost as damaging as those of the Tory party.
The rise of the BNP during this campaign also cost us votes – but it did so invisibly. This is because of a separate under-the-radar campaign ran by various interest groups and sponsored by the Daily Mirror. In Hackney, two tabloids paid for by the Mirror were delivered to nearly every address. While ostensibly politically neutral, this tabloid was full of scare stories about the implications of the BNP coming into power. Since not being ethnically cleansed is a pretty fucking good incentive to vote, the combination of this campaign with the newspaper stories about the BNP backing Johnson meant that all of a sudden an awful lot more black people had a big reason to vote than last time. This came out in the results – Jeanette Arnold’s vote doubled since last time. What did we do to try to take some of these additional voters for ourselves? We talked about the importance of the police not excessively focusing on young black men – which, while important, rather missed the issue.
We were thus abandoned by a lot of our traditional support, and failed to capitalise on the increased voter turnout. This is because our campaign was insufficiently sophisticated to take this into account. Focusing on crime was important to overcome what has traditionally been perceived as a weak issue for us, and indeed we started getting the signals that this was working (people calling us up to tell us to stop just talking about crime). The problem was, we started getting these signals two weeks before election and didn’t start diversifying our message to take this into account.
I would argue that what we can take away from this is twofold. Firstly, we must resist the temptation to retreat to our comfort zone and focus exclusively on the local interest groups in council wards that we can already deal with. We will never win big if we do that. Secondly, one of the roles of the London campaigns department must be to identify these London-wide interest groups and develop a strategy and materials for targeting them. In essence, we need to find ways of doing street letters on a far bigger scale – partly through media work but also through ground war operations co-ordinated across multiple boroughs.
There are, of course, lots of other reasons why we didn’t win – two prominent personality politicians turned the contest into something more presidential, which Brian as a newcomer had a difficult job to break into. But the lessons we can learn from this contest will help us do better next time.