“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

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