“Take Back Control” and the Death of the Policy

This guest post comes from Alex Hunter, Insights & Analytics Director for Hearth Group and a longstanding Labour member. He shares his thoughts on the role policy has to play in the era of the political slogan. 


On the 18th of February 2017, Donald Trump held a rally in Florida where supporters held aloft signs that read ‘Make America Great Again’. Trump told reporters that he first came up with the slogan after the loss of the presidency to the Democrats in 2012. Of course, this may be true, but when Donald was 33 years old in New York City, Ronald Reagan was using that phrase in all his campaign media.

In 1963, Martin Luther King spoke from the heart when he said “I have a dream…” and it was to become one of the defining speeches of the age. Many have discussed the rhetorical measures employed, and the theatrics by which it was delivered. However, in reality it was simply an excellent reflection of feeling at the time, and it therefore deeply resonated with people and effected change.

I’ve wondered if Nigel Farage would like to think he can bump up against such titans of global politics, but his most catchy of slogans was ‘Nigel Farage will give Britain its voice back’ which wasn’t quite ‘Take Back Control’. The credit for that slogan goes to Dominic Cummings, a political strategist, not Nigel, Boris or Gove. Again, resonance was needed, and for this they turned not to internal feelings of discontent, but to data science.

The “Vote Leave” campaign hired scientists and engineers to build the databases and tools required to deliver an extremely effective campaigning tool. However, they also used their data to understand on a deeper level what makes people tick and used this to their benefit. They outclassed the opposition by competing on a different plane. No longer did policies matter when you could tap in to a different level of thinking. This is the future advocated by Dominic Cummings.

So, we’ve tapped into an emotional way of thinking and shortened political debate by about 7,000 words, but how did it come to this? It’s more the why, than the how. I believe I can point the finger squarely at my own industry, market research.

Asking people what they think is now easier than ever, and in some ways you don’t even need to ask. However, step back to the dark ages (before the internet) and you will find many more people than now were knocking on doors and dialling numbers to ask people to fill out a survey. This generates huge amounts of paperwork and data. Why not use the latest in text analytics to scoop up every public (and not so public) thing that people say and use that instead? And so, in our most public age of sharing, a new industry was born of predictive analytics and algorithms.

The problem with standard commercial text analytics is that it still doesn’t really work. If you send that last sentence through my IBM text analytics software it tells me that I’m displaying negative sentiment and talking about the category of analytics. It’s right of course, I am, but it has obviously lost a lot of the nuance of my language. If you condense everything into a black or white statement on a category then you’re very likely to see the debate as fairly polarised. 44% believe the economy is negative, 38% believe it is positive, 18% ‘unknown’.

This means that the process of governing has become so much easier. No longer is it necessary to understand or empathise. You don’t need to believe in what you’re doing, you just need to sell it. Which is the best environment for corporate marketing. We are being governed not by politicians, but by marketers. Is it any wonder that the media means so much to them. They analyse sentiment, deliver policies and wrap it all up in a catchphrase which appeals to our base emotions. When the rewards are big enough, someone steps this on, and delivers class leading political messaging.

In 1996 Tony Blair took to the stage of the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool and after a while he said, “Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education.” to rapturous applause. He chose this line because he had looked at all the polling and knew that a focus on education was not only important to him, but to Britain. This was a new way of working and was to continue to guide him for years to come.

Fast forward 20 years, and we have Theresa May saying, “Brexit means Brexit” which not only didn’t make much sense, but left people empty of feeling. What we don’t know though is whether this was an attempt to surf the wave of feeling generated by the referendum. Did this play to concern that politicians were fiddling around the edges? Is this the tell to suggest Theresa has switched up to a new way of working?

What does this mean for Corbyn and Labour? Well, it probably means that his concentration on policies that matter will only continue to speak to the people for whom are willing to engage which means there will continue to be the obvious echo chamber effect. Of course, it is entirely possible to go out and fight on fair terms, bringing all the same data science to bear. Alternatively, it will be necessary to await the political conditions that were there for Martin Luther King Jr. and hope it comes soon.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexghunter

Who Are The Blairites?


I don’t know if you heard but on Friday morning an ex. Prime Minister gave a speech about the EU. You know the one: haunted look, manic smile, constantly on edge as if he’s seeing ghosts – oh and a bloody good orator. It’s a sad state of affairs when the only person in the Labour party speaking for the 63% of Labour voters who voted Remain is Tony Blair. Yep for just 10 minutes Blair was back although, listening to the bickering among Labour members over the last 18 months, it’s hard to believe he ever went away.

“The Blairites” are the reason Corbyn’s Labour Party won’t win a General Election. Corbyn’s approval ratings plummeting? It’s because of the Blarities briefing against him. An MP resigns from their seat? Blairite coup. Labour’s polling getting worse week after week? It was fine until the Blairites. It was the Blairites who elected Gareth Snell, the anti-Corbyn candidate, in attempt to lose Stoke. You see Blairites are both ruthless careerist politicians who will do anything to get Labour back in to power but are also masterminding plots to keep Labour out of power. They are completely toxic: clinging to the values of an ex. leader with lower approval ratings than Corbyn. The public hate Blairites, they’re the reason we lost so many members and why our share of the vote decreased during New Labour’s tenure, oh and at the same time they’re so revered that their opinion of Corbyn can sway voters.

So who are these apparent puppet masters? Who are The Blairites?

Well Blair obviously – he’s a massive Blairite. He loves all the Blair stuff: Iraq, PFI, tuition fees, academies etc… I think we can all agree on that. Technically the term “Blairite” refers to the most right-wing faction of the Labour Party which would include: Liz Kendall, a self-confessed “fan” of Blair, Jamie Reed, Tristam Hunt and David Miliband. Four of those people are no longer serving as MPs. Caroline Flint would often be classed as a Blarite but after condemning Blair’s speech on Friday, towing the party line on Marr this morning and voting in line with three-line whip on Article 50 people are not sure what to think.

And here’s the problem: some Corbyn supporters seem to use the term Blairite to describe ANYONE who has ever disagreed with Corbyn.

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, is called a Blairite because he defied Corbyn on the Article 50 vote. However he is also one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn to be leader in 2015.

Catherine West, my local MP, is apparently now a Blairite for not following the three line whip on Article 50. She is one of the few MPs who didn’t vote “no confidence” in him last year and on the day he was elected leader in 2015 and attended the “Refugees Welcome” march immediately after the result was announced, appearing onstage next to Corbyn.

Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner is a Blairite for her claiming, “Tony Blair’s tenure changed my life it gave my children a life that I could never have dreamt of having and I want us to get back to that.”

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan is a Blairite, despite nominating Corbyn for the leadership election in 2015 because, well I don’t know why really but maybe it’s because he won an election and what could be more Blairite than that?

Yvette Cooper, famously a Brownite, is a Blairite because she, you know, was there… at that time…

When I’m having a down day I remind myself of the time I saw a tweet dismissing Gordon Brown as a Blairite…

The trouble I have with the term is that it’s lazy. It ignores the distinction between the “soft left” and the “right” of the party. A division that plagued New Labour: the Blairites vs. Brownites. It has become a term to describe anyone who disagrees with Corbyn on anything. It’s anyone who acknowledges that being in power means making compromises. It’s anyone who wants to win an election. It’s anyone who disagrees with this three line whip on the Article 50 vote. It’s anyone who believes we should be worried about the polls.

It is not the case that disagreeing with Corbyn makes you a Blairite.

Questioning the effectiveness of Corbyn’s opposition does not mean you want another Tony Blair – you can disagree with both. I have real problems with some of Blair’s decisions – Iraq being the main one. It would be an error to think we can just try and repeat the 1997 election. But I also have issues with Corbyn’s leadership. I voted for him in 2015 but Brexit completely changed my view of him. His complete disregard for the 63% of Labour voters who voted Remain is astonishing.

The threat to the Labour Party is not the man who hasn’t been leader, or even an MP for a decade. It’s too easy to blame him. For as long as we have the excuse of “The Blairites” we can ignore the real issues facing the Labour Party. Let’s be really honest most of the electorate don’t care if the Labour Party is run by the right, the soft left or the hard left. They just want an effective opposition and a competent leader.


I’ll “Get Behind Brexit” If You Can Tell Me What It Is


It’s been almost 8 months since the referendum and in that time there’s been about a decade’s worth of news. We’ve seen a new President, a new leader of the Conservative Party and several new leaders of UKIP. In that time I’ve also moved to the Netherlands which has given me a chance to view Britain from an outsider’s perspective and sadly, from this vantage point, it’s not looking great. From what I can make out from Dutch headlines we are seen as the petulant child of Europe.

My feelings about the referendum have been well documented. The result hurt. I’ve gone through denial and anger and now I’m on to bargaining. I’ve accepted that we are leaving the EU. I’ve accepted that it probably won’t bankrupt us, other than perhaps morally. I’ve accepted that leaving probably won’t mean WW3 although, I admit, I am a little nervous that our closest political ally is now an adolescent, emotionally unstable bigot who feels the need to retaliate in response to the smallest of grievances.

If Remain had won the referendum I would have expected the Remain “side” to reassure those who had voted to Leave. It would have been our responsibility, as the victors, to listen to the concerns people had about the EU and address them. It would have been our job to make a success of our EU membership. Had the Remain vote won I would not be shouting at Leave voters, “You lost – get over it! Oh and stop moaning because you’re making us look bad.”

Yet nobody seems to think it’s necessary to listen to or reassure the 74% of the population who did not vote for this. I don’t see anyone even taking their views into consideration. I see a Prime Minister so scared of UKIP eating into her majority that she’s willing to copy their campaign slogans and a Labour Party trying to represent both the 48% and the 52% and failing miserably. I’ve received emails, messages and tweets telling me to stop being so “anti-Britain” and to “get on board” with Brexit and “make it work.”

It is not on me to make Brexit work. I never believed this COULD work without making people’s lives worse which is why I didn’t vote for it. At the moment I’ve not been given any assurances leaving the EU will improve the lives of UK citizens and this really worries me. I want to know that once we’re out of the EU, the price of food won’t increase, families won’t be worse off and that workers’ rights will be protected. I want reassurance that my friends who have moved to the UK from France, Italy and Sweden and made it their home will be allowed to stay. I want a guarantee that Theresa May won’t use the NHS as a bargaining chip in a deal with Trump. In an ideal world I’d also like someone to confirm that I won’t have to fill in three forms every time I leave the country. Last year I did an around-the-world trip and, trust me, once you’ve done the paperwork necessary to get into Russia, Mongolia and China you’ll never moan about queues at passport control in EU countries ever again.

I will “get on board” with Brexit if someone, anyone, can show me what it is I’m getting on board with.

Because here’s what I see at the moment. I see our Prime Minister holding hands with the most dangerous head of state my generation has ever seen. I question whether this is the time to be cutting ties with our 27 neighbouring allies. Should we not be taking a stand against Trump and his beliefs that are so at odds with our European interests and values?  History will not judge us kindly for appeasing Donald Trump. I watched with admiration when President Hollande, Prime Minister Rutte & Chancellor Merkel condemned Trump’s “extreme vetting.” Statements of solidarity poured in from Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark & Finland. Sadiq Khan, Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood spoke out. And our Prime Minister? She said it was none of her business and held his hand. I wonder how many times in the years to come will May have to decide between standing with Trump or standing with Europe and I wonder, if she has one, what her red line would be. What would he have to do for her to stand up to him?

I also hear from the Prime Minister the she is quite willing to walk away from the EU with no deal whatsoever. Labour’s proposed amendments to the Article 50 bill are sensible and offer some reassurance to the 47 million people who did not vote to leave the EU but given that the party line seems to be that even if NONE of their amendments make it on to the final bill they’ll still vote it through it all feels quite tokenistic.

So I’m listening. Tell me what the vision is for this brave new world and I’ll try and get behind it. Just don’t you dare tell me that this is anything to do with sovereignty.