Why the web will be a universal tripwire for electioneering party chiefs

07 January 2015 -


The marriage of soapbox rhetoric with big data that is likely to typify the General Election campaign will leave few politicians unembarrassed

Jon Bennett

Yes, there’s no mistaking it – it’s a General Election year. Conservatives and Labour alike have been fast out of the blocks this week with de facto launches of their four-month campaigns. Senior Conservative figures fronted the launch of a dossier into Labour’s spending plans, designed to demonstrate a focused team and expose irresponsible commitments from the opposition. Ed Miliband’s speech in Salford promised four-million conversations with real voters. And as attention focused on the launch of a Conservative poster – pointing the nation on a road to plenty that just happened to end near Weimar in Germany – a stark contrast was apparent between the political campaigning of yesteryear and the realities of a more connected world today.

Before the election of 1997 – and bruised by the media’s savaging of Neil Kinnock five years beforehand – Labour set up what was to become its famous rapid-rebuttal unit. The team set out to first identify and then challenge what it saw “Jonas misleading stories, facts and figures in the press. Underpinned by the grandly named Excalibur, a computer system packed with data with which to support Labour messages and attack those of its opponents, the unit fine-tuned a way of campaigning that was emulated by both admirers and opponents in the UK and overseas.

That style of rebuttal was in evidence this week, in response to claims made in the Conservative dossier – which Ed Balls described, with no little historical resonance, as “dodgy”. By forensically attacking certain claims in the report, Labour hoped to undermine the whole exercise. The document itself, and its rebuttal, were based on detailed, line-by-line analysis and a process of claim and counterclaim that’s designed to take control of the media agenda.

But while traditional media remains hugely important to any party that is trying to get its message across, whether most people can follow – or will choose to follow – the new, audit-style debate is questionable. What comes across is a general impression that you can’t believe what any party is saying.

Meanwhile, a technological phenomenon with processing power that the creators of Excalibur could only dream of will be taking the debate in a host of unpredictable directions.

The internet instantly subjects any statement, image, fact or figure made public by politicians and activists to worldwide scrutiny. So, the German rural idyll used by the Conservatives was soon exposed – as were the distasteful social media posts, made in 2011, of the fellow who introduced Ed Miliband’s Manchester speech this week. Somebody somewhere will seek to characterise each and every step of the campaign as some sort of gaffe, and the smallest of gaffes can quickly undermine the biggest of policy announcements. As fast as the parties can rebut one attack, the internet’s capacity to apply the analysis of millions of people to the finest details of recent history stirs up a dozen more.

How can you fight this fire?

With fire itself: an army of supporters who, through thousands of individual actions, will steer the direction of the public debate. But the techniques required are far more than the top-down system of message control that prevailed in 1997. Miliband’s four-million conversations are perhaps a start, but he can’t do that alone. Labour’s leader needs an army of conversationalists to talk the talk, if he wants to walk that walk into Downing Street.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.

For more thoughts and in-depth analysis of how online messaging affects reputations, sign up to the forthcoming CMI seminar Social Media… Busted.

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