The UK’s next general election must be held by January 2025. It may come as soon as next Spring, Andrew Marr argues, based on a potential temporary win in ‘stopping the boats’, or some such manufactured Culture War outrage, as the deputy leader of the ruling party conjectured. So it’s a good time for BBC Radio 4 to air How To Win A Campaign, written and hosted by Cleo Watson, former Downing Street strategist, advisor to Johnson and Dominic Cummings and Vote Leave insider, who “examines the dark arts of political campaigning”.
Watson bigs up that while the mysterious Cummings the Merciless “doesn’t tend to speak to the media much, he did agree to speak to us”, (without his accompanying backing track). Well, they did both work at Vote Leave. And this may be his chance to use the BBC to show off his electioneering showreel, and convince the powers-that-be, or the powers-that-want-to-be, to hire him so as best to convince the rest of us.
Like Rupert Murdoch (now teetering back from controlling News Corp) did after the 1992 general election, when the Tories, behind in the polls, weakly led, jaded after 13 years in office, pulled off a shock win. How? Well, ‘It Was the Sun Wot Won It’ with the paper spearheading the relentless demolition of Neil Kinnock, and this hardwired into the psyche of every politico across the spectrum that to win office they had to first win over Murdoch.
But as Watson says, “success stories can be misleading”. As Ipsos estimates, in 1992, the Sun’s readers turnout for Labour, at 36%, actually beat the national vote of 35%, and while the Tory-supporting 45% surpassed the nation’s 41.9%, Tory turnout from the Times, Telegraph, Express, Daily Mail and Financial Times’ readerships scored in the 1960s and 1970s, while for Labour was in the teens bin.
“Learning how we’re being appealed to we may learn ways of resisting”
Reality is whatever someone believes, or what you get them to believe, and if you convince someone you’re indispensable, that they can’t live without you (abuse?) they’re yours.
And the point is it’s not about the rights and wrongs of the campaign, not about the arguments per se, the debate, the issues, but how it was fought. In fact we talk about ‘milk before tea or tea before milk’ to the point we’ve distracted and debased the arguments so much people will vote the ruling party back in for a laugh.
As Watson says, even if you think it’s all trickery, manipulation, and a distraction from real issues, “learning how we’re being appealed to we may learn ways of resisting”.
The radio series
BBC Sounds often uploads whole series in one go while broadcasting episodes one by one, but this series is available at all only episode by episode. Waiting for the whole series to finish means letting its foibles circle the world untold times before the truth gets its trousers on. But debunking it show by show will maximise its Internet footprint. Cummings talks of psychology, getting your opponent to play themselves, in fact just get them to “just spin out and be demented about it”.
Corbyn and Starmer
The programme touches on the highs and lows of a slew of recent campaigns. There’s an uplifting section on how Corbyn was swept to power and nearly into No. 10 in 2017, as Momentum groups were set up across the country, groups preventing infighting by channeling efforts into creating voter lists, email lists, online petitions, creating online content and videos to tap the groundswell supporting Corbyn.
All the while, as Momentum’s co-founder James Schneider told it, they challenged the negative orthodoxy that their efforts would change nothing, would deliver a paltry “2% bump at best”, they had to pre-empt attacks by going negative early.
Instead they went big on policy. When told rallies didn’t work, they packed out a community hall on a sunny day, supporters blocking the roads, hanging from the trees, so the 6 and 10 0’clock news had Corbyn advocating “full school meals”, surrounded by happy people, against the Tories saying, “‘mmm, you can’t have nice things’”. And 2017 was nearly won.
Conrast: The succession of Starmer was notably based not on policy but credibility, “about personality”, his strategist Chris Ward said.
More broadly, while the ground war is about getting out the vote, the ‘air war’ is gathering data about us, then crafting and targeting messages at us. Many key messages have been test-driven in the Commons; Cameron and Osborne very much loved to use PMQs to see what stirred their backbenchers and what riled the opposition – cheers and tears.
But an establishment might think its campaign is great, only to find the public sticking two fingers up them – exposing that the establishment don’t know as much as they think they do? Cummings thinks that: “Fundamentally it happens because the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing.”
And it was Brexit when the two biggest fingers were the highest, the referendum where received wisdom was turned on its head, in which even Watson calls Vote Leave’s campaign “infamous”. Indeed, with Cummings at the helm.
Aye, Lucy Thomas, former deputy chair of Remain-backing ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’, remarks on how the greatest campaign on paper with all the polling and data on-side can dry up in the face of reality, while Cameron’s top campaigner Craig Oliver, the hero of the 2015 victory, after June 2016 is a full-on zero.
The follow-on was 2019, and the ex Vote Leave communications chief Paul Stevenson, by now Johnson’s strategist, talks of needing to frame the question in voters’ minds that the politicians want them to answer in the ballot booth – i.e. “Do you want Brexit to get done or not?” By then most people, pro-Brexit or not, just wanted it over. “They wanted to stop the madness, to break the deadlock.” The madness. The madness? What? Wasn’t it about sovereignty, taking back control, getting a good deal, anymore? No, just stop the madness.
Frame it properly and madness is something you can inflict. Cummings: “If you do it in a certain way, you’re almost guaranteed to get the other side to just spin out and be demented about it.”
He talks about Brexit. “Remain controlled no 10, it controlled most of the most powerful institutions in the country. But it managed to lose to a start-up that had only been in existence for ten months.”
Come on, none of this David vs Goliath stuff. Even the remarks on the ‘big currents’ concurrent at the time – people were still reeling from the financial crisis; Europe was still steeped in the Eurocrisis; and a historic wave of migration was crossing Europe. “Three very, very big historic forces which were the underground currents of the whole thing.”
Cummings played that hand well. But this “start-up” was also working off decades of lies drip-fed by the main right-wing papers in a void of ignorance about the EU left by the mainstream media, the education system, government, and society at large. Consider also that Nigel Farage thanked Murdoch for helping them win in 2016, and thanked Steve Bannon’s Cambridge Analytica for the social media campaigning, using purloined data (Watson says the next instalment will debunk certain myths about data – we’ll see).
Cummings and co. didn’t just have morning broadsheets to propagate misinformation, but wall-to-wall talk radio, memes beamed onto our social media and into our phones 24/7. Vote Leave campaign had serious funding, worked with Lexiters, had supporters and place people across the Commons, the Lords, industry, the media, Tufton St, the US, and its raft of unelected pushers and pundits made any and every promises they had no means of implementing, nor any intention thereof. Failure, disappointment, charges of treason, would all fall at the door of elected representatives. And even then it took over three years of madness to deliver.
But back to
David – Dominic Cummings’ recipe for success: Gather a small group of extremely able people, who understand communications, pollsters, digital people, and ideas, machines, finding and nurturing talent. “Which is difficult, which is why it happens so rarely … Underrated is management” he says, talking about himself, before citing inspiration from Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, et al, who say it’s focus that’s paramount – which gets lost amid the heady churn of government.
The final few minutes are revealing. Watson talks of having to “get beyond personality and engage with public scepticism towards all politicians and get under the skin of your opponent.” And that’s what Cummings does, in what he dismissively refers to as a “regional referendum in the North East, on the North East Assembly,” – like it’s some backwater, and not where his folks live nor where he felt safe fleeing to during Covid (wife kindly providing an alibi).
North East referendum
This referendum he viewed as a ‘try out’ – a try out? – on ‘how the structure worked, how the rules worked, the BBC’.
Somehow they flipped a 2-to-1 lead in favour of the assembly to ‘no’ winning 80 : 20. How? “Because we just turned the referendum on, ‘do you trust the politicians doing a good job, or do you think they’re lying, useless people?”’.
Which even today is the only thing many people remember of that referendum – not, should we give the North East its own voice, its own powers to overcome, elide Westminster’s stiflingly decadent indifference, but should we give locals agency, let them ‘take back control’ if you like, through their own democratic chamber.
No. No discussing the merits or pitfalls of that. Just tap into and whip up the apathy and despair with weapons-grade manufactured cynicism, as one campaign ad put it: “Now politicians want even more power for themselves. By creating a regional assembly made up of full-time, professional politicians. It’s time to say no.”
And Cummings found it very eye-opening that no big guns from London, even Labour’s seasoned, successful campaigners, could counter that, indeed they often made it worse, “and they couldn’t help it.” His MO: “How do you try to draw them into discussing the whole thing in a way which the psychology can’t help, but nevertheless whenever they do it it’s actually helping you, not them?”
If you’re not a North Easterner, watch Our Friends in the North, written 30 years ago about the region’s story starting from 30 years before – and it is staggeringly redolent and relevant how entrenched are the ideas, “we’ve been left behind”, “voting changes nothing”, “politicians are in it for themselves”. Cummings, with his northern roots, knows this.
So he offered nothing but to poison the already disenchanted soil so people lose faith in their elected representatives altogether, to harvest such apathy and disillusion that people think all politicians are useless, the whole system’s useless, representative democracy is useless, our voices as votes don’t matter – so we’ll have none at all. The dead weight of cynicism that suffocates others’ voice and enthusiasm – but allows the shrillest to be heard. Despair fertilized by Tory Austerity.
And so it was for the 2016 referendum, be it Take Back Control or £350mn for the NHS, whatever, if done in a certain way, “you’re guaranteed to get the other side to spin out and just be demented about it.” And moreso, just feed into the apathy he’d helped stoke years before into a harvest of frustration and anger – more against the Tories in Westminster than Brussels, but a win’s a win, whatever they voted for.
Curse Watson and Cummings’ mind games, ensuring we listen in, and only learn the lessons they’ve picked for us like their foes fight irrelevant battles pre-picked for them. Do we stand apart, or take up their methods, ensuring democracy itself is finally, utterly, inexorably debased, at our own hands?
As it always was. I remember at a Labour campaigning session in 2006, us naïve campaigners getting nervy about iffy methods, whereupon the chief canvasser laid it bare: “Principles without power are worthless.”
If you can bear the self-satisfaction, the smirks, it may be compelling listening. Already, score one to Watson and Cummings.
Episode 2 is this Tuesday on BBC Radio 4, 09:30.