Strategy and the UK General Election 2015

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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.

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. (more…)

Twitter… witter… itter… tter… er.

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Image: Beware the Echo… (Credit: Zorilla)

Tom‘s an echo-chamber refusenik, which is one of several good reasons I make a point of reading everything he posts on his blog Usable Interfaces. He’s a guard against lazy thinking, re-Tweeted half-thoughts and emergent untested aphorisms.

Take his latest broadside – “Just because you can” – against Twitter noise in the UK marketing networks. Basically he’s taking issue with the idea that agencies *should* have a Twitter voice and that the longevity and frequency of that voice will show you how good they are at social media stuff (this also chimes with my own suspicion of Twitter lists as meaning anything – how can you benchmark behaviour in a single way when people have so many different ways of using it?).

I’ll pick you out a few challenges and warnings that might shake you out of sleepwalking into a world where you declare microblogging to be the answer to the agency world’s ills:

  • “…it’s also fair to say that the mere presence or absence of a twitter stream does not confirm or deny a reasonable approach to the medium – just as the presence of a brain does not imply brain activity.”
  • “…isn’t ‘thought leadership’ something that PR people invented in the late 90s…. I mean the concept that a single thought-leading idea will be used in marketing or PR. Isn’t is an idea precisely oriented to single-track mass media of which Twitter is the antithesis?”
  • “…the benefit of Twitter in terms of promoting our agency is that people can see that there is a great deal of (leading) thought going on, and they can get involved in those thoughts and start a debate. But EMC Conchango as an entity doesn’t have a single view on anything. It’s got 400 views.”
  • Having a single Twitter voice for his agency “would be a denial of thought, and certainly wouldn’t be an indication of our leadership position. Unless we were following the North Korea model.”

Cheers, Tom – thanks for the challenges and keeping us intellectually honest.

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.