Author: Amil Khan
In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 General Election, Labour Together approached Valent to undertake a review of the Conservative Party’s digital strategy as part of their review of the Labour Party’s election strategy. What we found at the time looked interesting - there were clear signs that the Conservatives had seriously upped their game since 2017 - but the deadline was tight, and the information we could get hold of was limited. We knew at some point we would need to dig deeper.
When official election spending data started to come out, the plot thickened. It seemed the Conservatives had actually spent significantly less - including £1m less on social media specifically - than they had in 2017, yet achieved far more. This was when we knew we needed to revisit the issue. Progressives often dismiss learning from the Conservative Party, on the basis that they just have more money. But if the Conservatives were spending smarter, this became something we had to understand. This was when we started working again with Labour Together, but also the Social Liberal Forum and Compass.
The resulting report, Power and Persuasion: Understanding the Right’s Digital Playbook, is published today and free to download from the Valent website. We’re hosting a discussion with Hannah O’Rourke from Labour Together, Neal Lawson from Compass, Dr Kate Dommett from Sheffield University (author of another recent report on digital campaigning, for the Electoral Reform Society) and Jon Alexander from the Social Liberal Forum on Thursday evening. I’m excited that Paul Hilder, CEO of Datapraxis and one of Europe’s most experienced and widely admired progressive strategists, will also be joining us. You can sign up for the event here.
By way of a snapshot in the meantime, the report is structured around eight key Conservative Party tactics, and five recommendations to progressives of all parties and none in response.
Two key insights frame the findings:
- The Conservative Party won fewer than 330,000 additional votes in 2019 compared to 2017 - less than 0.7% of votes cast - yet won a landslide 80 seat majority. This suggests that they won votes in the right places to translate into seats, the result of highly effective targeting.
- The Conservative Party spent significantly less money in 2019 compared to its own spend in 2017. This suggests that they have begun not just to spend more than other parties, but to spend smarter.
The eight key tactics used by the Conservative Party in 2019 are:
- Nailing The Narrative: highlighting the fact that Boris Johnson’s approach had in fact been developed for Theresa May by Lynton Crosby in 2017, but not used by her
- From Top Table To God Pod: highlighting the shift in power over campaign strategy from politicians supported by admen to politicians led by digital campaigners
- Targeting: Who, What, When?: highlighting the tools - such as daily MRP polling and Facebook analytics - that allowed the Conservative Party to focus its digital spend where it would translate into seats, and when (including the fact that spend appears to have been heavily loaded at the end of the campaign)
- Building Local Skills: highlighting the role of digital agencies - who do not appear on the Conservative Party official election spending submissions - in supporting key candidates to develop their social media profile and effectiveness
- Outriders: contrasting the difference in impact between progressive outriders such as Momentum and Novara with the highly targeted approach of Conservative outriders - and pointing out the lack of transparency as to the funding of many of these
- Exploiting Broadcast: explaining the dynamics behind the Conservative Party’s use of broadcast media primarily as a means to generate content for social media
- Counter Crisis With Disinformation: looking at the case study of the sick boy on the floor of Leeds Hospital in comparison to disinformation techniques used around the world
The five recommendations for progressives are:
- Embrace persuasion: This is a way of using digital that the progressive movement hasn’t yet got up to speed with, and needs to
- Invest time and energy in narrative: Narrative development and message testing need constant work, and certainly work well before any election campaign period begins
- Equip and empower local candidates with digital tools: Local parties should be a point of distinction for the progressive movement, but they need support
- Supercharge the outriders: The progressive movement is an organic, diverse movement, not just a hierarchical monolith; that’s a huge strength, but only if we make it deliver
- Make targeting a campaign obsession: Once the campaign period begins, knowing moment-to-moment what’s happening and whether it’s working and allocating resource appropriately now possible - and essential
Amil Khan is the Director of Valent Projects.