2010s >> 2019 >> no-1374-february-2019

Proper Gander: Making A Drama Out Of A Crisis

The great big mess Parliament’s made of leaving the EU wasn’t what the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign told us it would be like. If you believed the slogan on the side of that bus, it would be as simple as transferring the £350 million apparently sent to the EU each week into the NHS’s needy coffers. That particular stunt was one among many examples of how the campaign strategists tried to shape opinion in the run-up to June 2016’s referendum. The manoeuvrings of the Vote Leave campaign team were recently dramatised in Channel 4’s revealing one-off Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Vote Leave’s chief strategist, and the drama’s central character, is Dominic Cummings. His CV includes running projects to stop Britain adopting the Euro and ratifying the EU’s constitution, and being Michael Gove’s main adviser during his unpopular stint as Tory Secretary of State for Education. Despite having a key role in shaping the Leave campaign, Cummings hasn’t been widely heard of, or attracted the attention of many journalists or commentators until now. Instead, the faces of the Leave campaign have been those of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, who are hardly glowing examples of humanity. In the drama, Cummings is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him as the usual Cumberbatch brooding maverick-type with an annoying amount of self confidence. He stands on tables, he cycles on the pavement, and he talks in blunt, opinionated aphorisms.

His manner makes him disliked among the ranks of white-haired, old-fashioned Leave-supporting MPs, not least for his boasts about wanting the campaign to look like ‘an insurgence against the establishment’. They needn’t worry about him doing anything to really challenge the status quo, but they should have realised he’s much savvier than them about how political campaigns are run in the 21st century. So, his approach utilises the latest social media tools, with its messages carefully honed from research and data.

Cummings wants his campaign to focus on ‘cost and control’. He’s reluctant to bring immigration too much into the pitch, saying there’s no need to target people who are against immigration as they’re already likely to back leaving the EU. He also thinks that Farage’s influence will lose them support, but sidekick Matthew Elliott suggests that Farage and his ilk can do the ‘heavy lifting’ on bringing xenophobia into the debate so ‘Vote Leave’ can keep their hands clean on the issue. The drama makes much of the lightbulb moment when Cummings thinks up the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, saying it appeals to the desire to regain what’s supposedly been lost. He wants leaving the EU to be a seen as proudly returning to the correct order, rather than bumbling into the unknown, as it’s turned out to be.

Also featured in the drama is Craig Oliver (David Cameron’s Communications Director), the Remain campaign’s main strategist. He’s depicted in a more reasonable, positive way than Cummings, albeit exasperated by his own campaign’s uphill struggle. Chatting with Cummings down the pub, Oliver says his campaign has had to counter a ‘slow drip drip drip of fear and hate’ he attributes to immigration. He tells Cummings that the Leave campaign ‘feeds a toxic culture’ of mistrust, while Cummings tells Oliver that his type has dominated politics for decades, and ‘change is exciting’. In an earlier scene, Cummings had recognised that (capitalist) referenda reduce complicated issues to crude binaries and sharp divisions in opinions. He doesn’t seem to realise, though, that his approach to the campaign exacerbated this.

Both sides of the campaign are shown to have a patronising, estranged attitude towards the general public. To them, each person is just a potential vote, there to be moulded into believing enough to cast it. The campaign teams ‘segment and target’ groups of people, such as ‘Ardent Internationalists’: degree-educated, gay marriage-supporting Remainers, and ‘EU Hostiles’ who are 98 percent white and retired, each comprising 11 percent of voters. Dividing up people into groups goes much deeper and more detailed than this, though. Our online activities leave behind a wealth of information about us, and algorithms are the mysterious driving force behind how this data gets processed, correlating who we are with what we prefer. Specialist software gathers information on websites visited, or tweets retweeted, or Facebook groups joined, cross-references it with each other and builds up a vast database of who is interested in what. Millions of Facebook users had their data surreptitiously mined by the disgraced consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, and sold on to Vote Leave. This information was then used by the campaign to target particular adverts to particular groups of people. So, anyone who clicked on a specially-designed Facebook post about Turkey, for example, would be sent the version of a Vote Leave advert which they will be most receptive to. The idea is that you’ll convince someone of something easier if you exploit its connections with something they already agree with. Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign led the way with this strategy, apparently.

Reducing people’s preferences to data is a simplistic way of relating to others, and when used to shape opinion, is manipulative and demeaning. The campaign teams are more comfortable treating the electorate as statistics than dealing with them as real people. As Brexit: The Uncivil War shows, modern political campaigning is about using the latest technology in an insidious, cynical way and glossing over complex issues. Why risk trying to change opinion through balanced, reasoned debate when you have tools like targeted adverts and a big red bus plastered with an extravagant claim?

MIKE FOSTER