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Watch out! Miliband’s micro-targeters are coming to get you

Watch out! Miliband’s micro-targeters are coming to get you

🕔24.Apr 2014

There was no shortage of questions following Labour’s decision to hire Barack Obama’s election strategist, David Axelrod, as adviser in the run-up to the 2015 General Election.

Why yet another imported elections guru? What’s he know about politics in the Black Country? Can anyone, even a Yank, make Ed Miliband charismatic? What’s the unspecified ‘six-figure’ signing-on fee: $100,000 or £900,000?

The money, we were assured, was an irrelevance. As Labour’s announcement explained, the appointment sprung from a genuine ‘marriage of minds’.

After lengthy phone conversations, Axelrod and Miliband found they “shared the same view about the biggest issue facing mature economies – growing inequality and the break between growth and most people’s living standards.”

Well, isn’t that just dandy – and just incredible.  If minds are what it’s all about, this marriage will be even more crowded than Princess Diana’s.

For this A-rod comes as a package. He’s bringing along two other Obama aides, one of whom, Larry Grisolano, is described as “a specialist in micro-targeting”, and it’s my guess that this is what Labour’s really shelling out for: micro-targeting methodology at least as much as mind-meeting.

I don’t pretend fully to understand micro-targeting, but I do get, and don’t much like, its democratic implications. I also feel it’s best explained by setting it in the broader context of electoral targeting, so I hope you’ll accept a few paragraphs of partly personalised scene-setting.

I was born in Leigh-on-Sea, went to school in Westcliff-on-Sea, and worked for my first paid job on Southend Pier. I could, therefore, describe myself as an Essex man.

But I never would – the main reason being that I’m most certainly NOT an Essex Man. Never mind email addresses; if ever case sensitivity matters, it’s here.

Upper case Essex Man was initially a political label, coined around 1990 to describe a type of brash, materialistic, uncultured, xenophobic, Rottweiler-owning Thatcher supporter, whose family had left war-damaged East London for the Essex suburbs and particularly the post-war ‘new towns’ of Basildon and Harlow.

As it happens, my father’s family had moved from Leytonstone in East London, but we definitely weren’t ‘new town’. On the other characteristics, I’d score my father 2 out of 6 – not keen on foreigners and an enthusiastic Thatcherite long before she was.

And I’d score myself, in this particular self-assessment exercise, a big zero. Definitely, definitively and definitionally not an Essex Man.

Digression over. Its point was to introduce an early example of the voter stereotypes that today’s advertising agencies and party strategists like dividing us into as a new election season approaches.

In electoral jargon, it’s an example of demographic targeting – one of the ways in which the major parties attempt to whittle the 47 million of us electors down to the smallest number possible on whom they really need to concentrate.

The most basic way is geographic targeting, one effect of which I described in these columns last summer in complaining about the democratic deficiencies of our electoral system and how my 2010 vote in the Edgbaston constituency had been worth two or three times that of most Birmingham voters.

Edgbaston was an ultra-marginal, and so was geographically targeted by both major parties, who spent far more time and money on its electors than on those in, say, Ladywood, Hodge Hill, Selly Oak, or Yardley, which were judged safe or unwinnable before the campaign even started.

Even in Edgbaston, though, there are nearly 70,000 of us. How much more efficient if, like advertisers, a party could demographically target – on the basis of their age, sex, income, education, home ownership, and other factors – those most likely to decide or change their votes during the campaign, and ignore the rest.

Hence Essex Man, who sounded like a geographic target, but was also a demographic target. Yes, it’s stereotyping; yes, it’s democratically dismissive of those of us who aren’t targeted. But for the parties it does make sense, and the better stereotypes do contain some truth, if hardly penetrating insight.

Thatcher, for instance, did owe at least the scale of her three election victories to her exceptional appeal to a certain section of the working class.

Labour, ever ready to flatter by imitation, was sufficiently spooked to recruit for the 1997 election the services of Mondeo Man – on the strength of Tony Blair having met a bloke polishing its predecessor, a Ford Sierra, while he’d been campaigning in 1992.

The proud polisher was an ex-Labour voter who’d done well out of Thatcherism, bought his council house and his Mondeo, set up his own business, and “become a Tory”. Why, he asked Blair, should he vote for a party with a history of raising taxes and mortgage rates.

In a longer conversation Mondeo Man would doubtless have revealed his views on trade unions and welfare benefits. But it wasn’t necessary; he’d already contributed to the birth of New Labour. If you can’t persuade voters to support the policies that stem from your principles, change – or at least ‘rebrand’ – your principles.

New Labour did, and won a landslide victory, thanks also to the assistance of Worcester Woman – an amalgam of Mondeo Man and her 1996 US equivalent, the Soccer Mom, whose overstretched time was spent ferrying her kids around in the SUV.

Worcester Woman was in her thirties, with husband, school-age children, and a probably part-time job. She worried about ‘quality of life’ issues, but not party politics, and was supposedly therefore more swayed by impressions she formed during the campaign. And yes, of course the supermarket shopping analogy was in her creators’ minds; after all, stereotypes are what they do.

She had to be swayed away from the Tories, which, as well as the alliteration, explains Worcester – a middle-England marginal seat that Labour had never previously won, but needed to if 1997 was to produce a Blair Government with a lasting majority.

Labour did take Worcester, and held it until 2010. Blair got his majority, and the voting gender gap, of women traditionally voting more Conservatively than men, was eliminated – until, also in 2010, it reopened, this time to Labour’s advantage, giving David Cameron his current electoral ‘problem’ with women.

It’s a shame, because in 2010 the Conservatives had tried so very hard. Their marketing people invented Holby City Woman (HCW), based on the Patsy Kensit/Nurse Faye Morton character in the BBC medical drama. Hardly catchy, but definitely preferable to the Casualty Woman she presumably might have been.

Reflecting the party’s election pledge to ring-fence NHS spending, HCW was in her thirties, with a husband/boyfriend, a demanding public sector job, and public sector worries about the costs of childcare now and adult care for her parents in the future. Probably voted Labour in the past, but judged a high probability switcher in 2010.

Which brings us to micro-targeting, a technique used extensively in the 2012 US Presidential campaign, both to solicit donations and ‘Get Out The Vote’. Its aim is to supplement geographic and demographic targeting by building profiles of individuals’ political sympathies and attitudes and micro-focusing a party’s campaign communications accordingly.

So if, prior to 7th May 2015, you start receiving twice-daily communications exceptionally in tune with your personal political views, you’ll know that you’re a micro-targeted swing voter in a marginal constituency. Which you may well find impressive and even flattering – or just possibly creepy.

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