Strategy and the UK General Election 2015


Image: Poor taste or poor strategy? A mug bearing one of Labour’s 2015 election pledges.

I’m interested in the role strategy played a role in how the parties behaved in the General Election that has just concluded. Strategy – when it is done well – gives organisations a clear answer to the question: how can I use the limited resources I have to achieve the result I want.

Looking at strategy won’t give us all the answers to why the election result was a surprise – when 45 million people get to make a decision together we should be careful to remember what John Tooby calls “nexus causality” (in layman’s terms explanations for events are never as simple as we’d like to think).

Comparing two accounts of the strategy of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives (now the two main parties in England, at least) there are signs that one got its strategy very right and the other very wrong.

Discussing the Labour strategy, Martin Kettle in the Guardian says:

It has always been clear that Miliband has been following a targeted electoral strategy. The generous view is that he believes that, after the financial crisis, there is a winning coalition to be built from core Labour voters, disillusioned Liberal Democrats and middle-class sympathisers with the poor. But last night it became clear that this strategy has quite simply failed.

If this was the Labour strategy it was a wishful thinking at best, at worst it was a vague vision passed off as a strategy. People think that visions are a good thing in strategy, often mistake them for strategy, but in the merciless, street-fighting reality of an election, visions are messages, stories to inspire, they are not effective ways of focusing resources.

The analysis was vague, the resolution equally so. No matter how much energy and resources Labour activists could muster it was going to be squandered on a “strategy” that had a lack of focus and direction.

Labour should publish it’s failed strategy, if it really had one, so that Miliband’s successors can learn from their mistakes.

The failure of Labour’s approach is even strarker when you compare it with the actual focus and discipline of the Conservative strategy, planned and delivered by political consultant Lynton Crosby and Chancellor George Osborne.

Here’s Kiran Stacey in The Financial Times on how the Tory campaign began:

Despite polls showing the Tories in a dead heat with the opposition Labour party, Mr Crosby was in ebullient form. “He told us everything was in our favour,” says an MP who attended. “As long as we made the campaign about the economy and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s weakness.”

Mr Crosby, who cut his teeth in the world of macho Australian politics, had studied the data and knew victory was in the Conservatives’ grasp if they could just win over a few thousand voters in a few dozen marginal seats in England.

What the Conservatives did was deliver well on both halves of the strategy equation: the analysis and direction were right, but then they implemented their plan without losing their nerve even when almost everyone else was telling them they were wrong.

This election was a very close run thing – for all the rejoicing in the blue camp about a majority, it is still wafer thin. Nonetheless, it is far better a result than anyone, bar the leadership of the campaign expected.

Confidence in the strategy waxed and waned in the tense six weeks that ensued — and the strategy itself sometimes wavered. But yesterday morning his approach was vindicated as the Conservatives confounded expectations by sweeping not just to victory but to a majority in parliament.

“The campaign managers were always confident that we could get there, but that confidence was not always shared at the top,” says a Conservative strategist. “Lynton was right all along.”

The Tories learned from their mistakes in 2010 and ran a more focused, consistent campaign in 2015. Labour did not learn from 2010 – it just replaced its leader and substituted wishful thinking for strategy.

People who are disappointed with the General Election result would do well to push for more effective leadership and better strategy from the Labour party. As professor of strategy Richard Rumelt put it in a paper on bad strategy for McKinsey:

The only remedy is for us to demand more from those who lead. More than charisma and vision, we must demand good strategy.

A final point on leadership. There was a strange trope on Twitter along the lines of “if only people voted for policies and not personalities”, as if the ability to develop and then deliver policy would be completely separate from personality. We may not have presidential elections in the UK, but backing a party is rightly affected by voters’ views on the leadership and whether they would be an effective leader for the UK.

New leadership might be hard to come by without a lot of new recruits to Labour, if we’re to believe Paul Mason of Channel 4 News the party hasn’t got the right people to think this through:

Miliband’s inner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted….

Labour […] is waking up to something much worse than failure to win. It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.

Ironic to think that a party that values diversity suffers from a lack of diverse brain power. It certainly needs to promote political and intellectual immigration into its own ranks if it is to rebuild its ability to win elections.

SNP make history with the social web: Change, design thinking and social media


The story of how the SNP subverted an electoral system specifically designed to keep them from gaining a majority in the Scottish Parliament elections a few days ago is one which rewards closer attention. There are valuable lessons here for anyone interested in politics, the social web and activism.

More broadly it is about disrupting the status quo using design thinking and social media to create a movement of passionate supporters.

Ewan McIntosh, whose work I have followed with great interest for years, was brought in as co-director of the SNP’s digital strategy when victory seemed a long way off…

When I started work on the campaign’s digital strategy and tactics, with 100 days to go to polling day, all polls indicated that the Labour party were set to win: at one point we were 15 points behind challengers, the Labour party.

Hope did, indeed, beat fear.


We redrew the political map of Scotland and, by engaging every demographic out there, helped make concrete the fact that the SNP really isScotland’s National Party.


We helped shift the public viewpoint from one where, six weeks ago, the party languished some 10-15 points behind Labour, to one where it finished with an outright majority of 69 seats in the 129 seat Parliament, a majority of Scots wanting a Scottish government working for Scotland in the form of the SNP.

Ewan McIntosh’s blog post on his talks about some of the lessons. While aimed at those in the education sector, there are things we can all learn from here. I especially like his point that:

Online activism is not PR: it actually creates change in the real world (including that most critical of offline actions in an election: vote for us), rather than just creating the perceptionthat something is changing in the real world.

Most school websites are PR. Good school Facebook pages are relentlessly appearing on parents’ and pupils’ own feeds, at all times of the day and night, creating offline actions that are desirable (do your homework, here’s some help, this parents’ evening looks interesting – I might head along for it).

What you say is not enough to build your reputation, what you do is much more important. This counts for individuals as well as organisations, naturally.

The clients I’ve worked with that have made the most of social media, gone furthest fastest, are the ones that know hat they are about and live their principles. People who want to talk a good game but don’t have much substance are

It’s why social media programmes are best thought of as agents for change, best deployed as part of organisational – or in the SNP’s case, systemic – revolutions.

Anyway, take a look at Ewan’s Edu Blogs post and the one on his account of the SNP’s victory on his  consultancy website. They are thrilling accounts of someone in the thick of it, as it were, of politics and who brought his design thinking and social media knowledge and skills to bear to stunning effect.


Uncertainty (and the certainty of Wikileaks coming to your organisation soon)


The introduction to a blog post by Charlie Beckett about the US State Department’s dilemmas and dealings with the Wikileaks affair more or less articulates something I’ve been mulling recently: how can organisations respond to some of the more extreme effects of the web:

Authority hates uncertainty. Big business and government feel safest when life is predictable and stable. Change implies a risk that your grip on power will be weakened. And unexpected change is the worst kind of all. But if uncertainty is permanent, can systems adapt?

A state department official, speaking at Polis under Chatham House rules, described the impact of Wikileaks on the delicate art of diplomacy:

The State Department official told us that Wikileaks reveals the brittleness of the balance between necessary secrecy of government and the freedom of the press. He said, memorably, that WikiLeaks was like ‘a cartoon grand piano dropped down upon that arrangement’. A lot of noise and not a little chaos.

The post moves on to make some excellent points about networks and the implications of a networks world…

The Internet is more powerful at amplifying political forces because it connects personal, mass and economic communication networks to one connected communications system – the Internet. This makes these networks more powerful but also more complex, vulnerable and unstable. Whether its WikiLeaks or Wael Ghnomin on Facebook, The Internet is the Uncertainty Principle in Global Relations.

The disruptive effects of the web – the revealed complexity of networks, the speed things spread, that edge ideas move to the mainstream, the altered balances of knowledge and power between individuals and groups – are being seen first in international relations and politics, but it is coming to commercial life too (just ask Bank of America).

Wikileaks may be the prime agent of disruption at the US State Department right now, but it is a manifestation of bigger trend, or set of trends – transparency, web-enabled activist networks, distrust of politicians – rather than the whole story in and of itself. There are other organisations like WIkileaks, they just haven’t made the headlines yet. As for the tools to be able to do what Wikileaks has done – well they are available to anyone.

Privacy and private information – be it your own, or your organisations – is effectively at the mercy of anyone who cares to consider hacking it and making it available. Many people see a public interest case in shining a light on US diplomacy.

Many will see the same case for exposing the workings of large corporations. But how about smaller ones? How about NGOs? How about every single company and local government department? How about patient records? How about your own personal email, social network and bank accounts?

Well, there’s a whole other set of blog posts to be made about the forces that unleashed Wikileaks being taken to their logical conclusions, but what is to be done in preparation? The case studies that are discussed around crisis communications and social media for instance are the often told instances customer revolt and revolting employees. Maybe communicators should be stretching themselves a little and thinking through the implications of when Wikileaks comes to their town.

Immediately we cannot guarantee a secret, the issue becomes about how we do openness, how we do business. The Uncertainty Principle sounds ironically like an organising principle for communications, brand and indeed wider business strategy. Going back to Charlie Beckett’s post, we have to wean our organisations off of certainties if they are to adapt to the complexity of the modern world.

On revolutions: two blog posts that stopped me in my tracks

Two blog posts – one notes for a Newsnight feature that never got made, the other an academic paper – made a deep impression on me when I read them last week, and have stayed with me since. I’ve recommended them on Twitter and to anyone whose will listen. For me they together mark a turning point in the development of the social web and the way it affects society and politics. They, and the events they analyse have implications for business, our personal lives and just about everything else as well.

I’m still digesting their implications, and the implications of the past few weeks in Egypt and Tunisia. This blog post comprises my notes on both pieces.

The two blog posts

First of all, if you haven’t read them yet, I cannot recommend highly enough taking some time to read these two blog posts (and many of the comments on the former):

Paul Mason: Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

Dan McQuillan: New Social Networks With Old Technology – What the Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media

Kicking off everywhere

Paul Mason’s post pulls together social, economic and technology factors that have led to what seems to be a global wave of street protests, activism and unrest…

At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media – as the mainstream media has now woken up to – but this obsession with reporting “they use twitter” is missing the point of what they use it for.

Some insights I took from his post were:

  • This isn’t all about technology, but technology’s effect have created the context for the revolutions in progress: “Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.”

  • Networks erode hard ideologies: He talks about the protest movements globally having at their heart the “graduate with no future” who is not prone to “traditional and endemic ideologies”. From Islamism to socialism, structured ideologies ultimately end up in movements becoming sclerotic as the forces of bureaucracy and internal power struggles take place. I’d say that this rule may hold true for corporations and other organisations ultimately.

  • The collapse of command and control communications as an instrument of authoritarianism: Because of social media “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”. This reminds me of something I learned early in PR about crisis communications – gossip and misinformation often moves faster than facts because it is illicit and has perceived value in human social networks. You pass on rumours and urban myths and spam because of this (“KFC has no chicken in it”, “New Facebook app lets you see who has viewed your profile”). In places where the media and government are spreading the lies and misinformation the hunger is for truth and the value in the social network comes from spreading. If truth is illict, it spread faster?

  • Transparency, and effect of the social web’s pressures on organisations, reveals not just information but how systems work: As Paul writes:

People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”.

One point which Paul makes links his notes to Dan McQuillan’s paper/post:

oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

It has always been thus. Undergrounds don’t need the internet, they have have happened, have thrived before. But social media doesn’t just provide new communications methods, it brings a new mindset. Over to our second blog post: New Social Networks With Old Technology – What the Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media

New Social Networks with Old Technology

Dan lays things out pretty in his abstract:

This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

This is an insight which is very valuable beyond the protests also. To put it pithily, using social media changes how we expect the world to work. It changes what we expect from relationships, how we find out about things, talk about things, organise things.

Dan also puts a certain bit of unhelpful misreporting/social media hype to rest when he discusses the “Thank You Facebook” image which featured in a lot of Western media. It’s a mis-translation at best…


The mis-translation of a protester’s sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is ‘FACEBOOK’, in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as ‘Thank you Facebook’. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is ‘Thank you, Egypt’s Facebook youth’. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them ‘Egypt’s Facebook youth’ it also recognises that they’re acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.

Acting differently doesn’t just mean using Facebook, Twitter et al:

My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it’s impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.

Dan walks us through a timeline of the cutting off of the internet in Egypt and discusses the range of “pre-Web” technologies people used to keep the networks working. “Older” tech like ham radio, modems and telephones came into play, along with tech like Tor started to be used:

The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.

I like as well, the clear way Dan dismisses the whole discussion about whether “it was Social Media wot won it”:

Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.

He goes on to say “social media has changed the global sense of entitlement” toward being able to have these kind of communications, connections, relationships… That sense of entitlement means cutting off the internet is

The strands of thought in these two posts, and the context that they bring isn’t a case of Western democracy and freedom prevailing. Democracy as it is currently practiced is also under pressure – witness Wikileaks and the friction between the US State Department and Twitter. Those promises and ideals that Google and its ilk had about protecting our personal information from intrusive state authorities? They are being tested now and will be tested more so in the coming months and years.

Businesses too will be tested by these forces. Transparency is one they need to consider, but also changed expectations of customers, employees, of everyone about how they work. All organisations, not just corrupt and authoritarian governments may well experience challenges from networks, from new ideas about what they should do, how they should be organised.

: : As an aside, how great blogging is still as a form for getting these thoughts out. Before blogs i might never have read Dan’s analysls outside of an acdemic paper months later. Instead I get his analysis the moment it is finished. The notes Peter made for the Newsnight feature would have stayed in a notebook once the piece for the programme was dropped. Instead he was able to not waste that intellectual effort but share it and reach a huge audience (I don’t know what the traffic is, but the number of comments and re-tweets of the article suggest it was significant.

May Day in Albion: will future historians declare the 2010 election for social media and the people?

How will future historians look back at the UK election of 2010?

We don’t know, of course, but the primary sources will be more than the letters between politicians, the newspaper reports and memoirs of the politicians. They will probably use the data-mining skills that will be commonplace then, possibly refined for the academic researcher to carry out information archaeology on the Tweets, emails and Facebook messages that survive from the rest of us.

Always look on the brightside of the downside…

Image: Grin-and-bear-it optimism...
Image: Grin-and-bear-it optimism...

Being utterly besotted with the web, and especially the social web, as I am, I tend dislike nay-saying about its significance, and the manifold benefits this thing will bring to society, the world etc. You know the sort of Daily Fail nonsense: Facebook gives you cancer, Twitter rots your brain, bloggers never meet real people.

But there’s a difference between reactionary nonsense and thoughtful critiques. Over at the O’Reilly Radar blog, Joshua-Michéle Ross has been poking at some of the more troublesome prospects that social technologies bring. Like how much of our identity and personal data are we surrendering for analysis by corporations and governments (since analysis of that data is a big part of my business, but I also value personal freedom that’s a particularly interesting issue for me).

He takes through a series of four posts that I highly recommend reading:

  1. The Evangelist Fallacy, Social Media and The New Age of Enlightenment: In which we are reminded that the Enlightenment with which we draw so many parallels to today brought not just progressive new ideas about equality and rights, but new (very effective) thinking about how to control the massses.
  2. The Captivity of the Commons: With the whole world connected and people living their lives in public we need to re-think privacy and how corporations work (so that they are less amoral).
  3. The Digital Panopticon: How the nightmare of the Panopticon is effectively at hand if corporations are able to see every detail of our livs in plain sight.
  4. Social Science Moves from Academia to the Corporation: Funding for social sciences will increasingly come from corporations as they try to understand how to manipulate mass social media.

As Alan Patrick says on Broadstuff:

hat makes this post extremely fascinating is that it comes from the O’Reilly Radar, which – in my experience anyway – have tended to be on the “cup overfloweth” side of the New New Social Thing, never mind a Glass Half Full – so this Glass Half Empty article – the first, it seems, of a series, is a rather fascinating shift of tenor, methinks.

He senses the beginning of a backlash, good and proper, perhaps coming from businesses (that aren’t managing to figure out how to get value out of networks as fast as Joshua-Michéle fears) as well as individuals wanting to rein in how much web shadow they are comfortable casting.

Meanwhile, Ian Delaney has a melancholy reflection on this subject that makes for good further reading and thinking matter, about how his early hopes that social media would bring socialist values to the fore are fading. He picks up the Panopticon analogy and extends it to society.

philosopher Michel Foucault back in the 70s picked up and ran with the idea of the Panopticon, especially in his best-known work Discipline and Punish. His idea was that Bentham’s model wasn’t just an idea for a prison; but for a society.

He argued that prisons are a really new idea. Back in the past, we simply thrashed/burned/drowned/stabbed transgressors. That all changed in the C18th with the Enlightenment . The idea of law-enforcement was ‘enlightened’ with the  understanding that resources [people] didn’t need to be wasted and that better social control is exercised through freely-given compliance, rather than co-option.

People could be turned into machines, a consequence of political thinking in the emergence of industrial society and the rush to efficiency and cost-allocation. Once properly mechanised, they could be ‘trusted’ – the scare quotes, because the trusted prisoner is no longer human. A big part of that process is surveillance: once people know that they are always (potentially) watched, they’re a bit more compliant to the rules, and a bit more like machines.

Actually, Ian turns from melancholy to fighting talk. Where is the transgression, he asks? What passes for subversion online is often just prnaksterism, often funded to, in small feats of legerdemain to slip in a flash of brand in front of the viewer.

The echo chamber is another danger in all of this, Ian says. Where are the racists in his network?:

Racists are poised to take Stoke in the next by-election. They don’t appear on my spectrum because I have deliberately blinded myself to their existence on a day-to-day basis. Diversity of opinion is purely opt-in (with strong incentives to opt-out) in socialmediaworld.

Add some racists to your feed list? I don’t know about racists, but I enjoy having different views on hand in my inbox. I detest a great deal of what some political bloggers say, but I like to try and understand. Sometimes I have had my mind changed too. I understand people on the right (OK, mainly the centre right) much better than I did when I was a pre-web student. Then I used to sneer at people for reading the Telegraph for goodness sake. Now I’ll read it’s leaders and blog posts alongside Comment is Free and the Guardian.

I’ll unsubscribe because people are boring, not because I disagree. Maybe that’s just me. And maybe I need to listen more to some Green voices, some far right voices, some Socialist Workers Party voices.

All is not lost, I say. Fight on…This world is still ours to shape, perhaps as never before. We’re right to identify these pitfalls and blind alleys, but nothing is inevitable in all of this. There’s still a revolution to be had.

After we’ve read these warnings, go and read some Umair Haque manifesto. Then think about what you will do this year to change the world. Seriously.

Point is: there’s a lot at stake.

Edge of a riot: Social media, balance and truth in the news

Image: A police line forms toward the end of yesterday's Gaza protest in London (credit: Rich Lewis)

When I was a student in 1994 I was on the front cover of The Indpendent the morning after a riot outside the Houses of Parliament.

The image was of a grimacing, dreadlocked fellow’s grimacing face lunging over the line of police shields.

(No, that wasn’t me…)

The picture spoke a thousand words. It told the whole story. The whole story of a photographer standing the other side of police barricade.

The image looked as if it was taken in the heat of the disturbance. In fact it was a while before anything had happened, when what would become a riot was still a peaceful protest against the Criminal Justice Bill. The man was drunk and on his own. I saw him have a tussle with the cordon of police and – rightly so – being arrested and taken away.

Far from being part of an angry mob there was no one behind him. Well, I was – a few metres back and hence I was in the shot.

Being *in* the protest was a very different experience to being the safer side of the police lines.

After yesterday’s protests in London about Gaza yesterday turned to violence, much of the news coverage is, understandably, about the riot, with few of the images and little of the copy dwelling on the rest of the day of protest. If it bleeds it leads, as they say…

Image: A policeman in riot gear at yesterday's protest (credit: Tyron Francis)

The non-bleeding, peaceful protests get their own coverage in social media. A search for “London protests” filtered by most recent brings images from today’s pro-Israel protests in London, then hundreds of images of yesterday’s March. There are the beginnings of trouble in there (police changing into riot gear as the mood gets uglier, fireworks going off outside the Israeli embassy) and some of the actual violence.

No doubt that in part reflects the priorities of people caught up in the violence (taking part / trying to get away rather than documenting the moment) but perhaps also gives a more proportional balanced view of how the day unfolded. The creativity and passion of the protesters, the diversity of people taking part, the scale of the event are there in the hundreds of photos people have uploaded.

Image: A family on the protest march (credit: Tyron Francis)

The truth is more prosaic, less dramatic, slower than the news cycle. But at a time when churnalism and misinformation is decaying the media’s usefulness as a truthful recorder of events, sometimes social media is where we need to turn for the facts.

: : I went back to the Flickr search as I finished this article and there were many more images of the violence at the end of the day being posted…

There are of course,

For a protester’s-eye view of being on the the march have a look at this:

Gaza protest in London from maryrosecook on Vimeo.

This one follows the news media’s format a little more closely, with the most of it being of the rioting at the end of the day. In big protests like this one, there are often people who are really there with the hop of provoking and tkaing part in trouble, masking their hooliganism as political activism.

Let he who is without a web shadow cast the first stone

Don't inhale, don't explete: Obama jobs demand spotless web shadows from applicants

Image: Photoshopping Obama into Rasta colours might not be a plus point if you’re applying for a job at the White House…

According to The Economist, applicants for jobs in the new Obama adminstration are undergoing rigorous background checks, including submitting “a history of their activities on the Internet, including copies of any emails which might embarrass Mr Obama, links to social networking pages, blogs, and the usernames or “handles” under which any of them were written”.

So knowing what your web shadow looks like is going to be a must there then…

This may have been an election campaign that played to the social meida grandstand, but old rules of politics and the media are still very much in play.

If we’re to be optimistic, the Economist has a bit of wishful thinking:

Perhaps, when dirt on almost everybody becomes readily available, politics will lose its hypocritical, moralistic tone.

You’d hope so…