Political Christmas gifts 2017

I’ve seen a few vendors of exciting, politically-themed Christmas merchandise and I thought it would be remiss of me not to share in case you are still looking for the perfect gift for the election-obsessive in your life.

The Jeremy Corbyn Christmas jumper

£35 from notjust.com


Make America Great Again Christmas Tree Ball

$45 from DonaldJTrump.com 

maga christmas decoration

Anti-Austerity seasons greetings cards

£5 from Radical Tea Towel


All I want for christmas is the means of production jumper

£28 from Teezily

means of production christmas jumper.jpg

The Bloody Difficult Woman mug

£8 from me

bloody difficult woman


Republicans for Democrat Doug Jones

Alabama, a state which has voted for the Republican candidate at every US Presidential election since 1980, is holding a Special Election (read: by-election) for their Senator on 12th December.

Multiple women have accused the Republican candidate Roy Moore of making unwanted advances or sexual assaults on them when he was in his early thirties and they were in their teens (the youngest was 14 at the time).

Given it’s traditionally such a GOP stronghold, campaigners are using Republican voices to give those who typically vote red the room to support the Democrat candidate Doug Jones.

Starting a political movement

A new range of tools, from online poll makers to crowdfunding platforms, have made creating and running a professional political movement easier than ever.

It’s no surprise then that Non-Party Campaigners (NPCs) – individuals or organisations that campaign in the run-up to elections, but are not standing as political parties or candidates – have dramatically increased in number in recent years in the UK.

In case any readers are thinking of taking to the stage at the proverbial festival of democracy that is an election, here are a few choice bits of research to help guide you in your tentative first steps in starting a political movement.

Clarify your ambition in simple terms

Political scientists Stewart, Smith & Denton researched political

movements throughout history and identified three broad categories:

Innovative movementstry to replace existing norms and values with new ones.

Revivalistic movementswant to reinstate values that have previously existed but have decayed or ceased to exist.

Resistant movementsaim to preserve an aspect of existing conditions.

The temptation to reinvent the wheel in political campaigning is incredible strong; by starting with one of these pre-set ambitions you’ll be in good company and save yourself some time.

Give it a clear brand

William Miller wrote eight principles for effective political movement branding in “Branding the Tea Party” which are based on a review of existing academic political

marketing literature. A summary of those principles are as follows:

1. Use a name that is easily recognisable by prospective supporters

2. Choose values and symbolism that will bond members of the movement together

3. Make it distinctive from other similar groups

4. Be consistent

5. Build a network to convey information about your movement

6. Give ways for people to convey their support for you

7. Be focused and aim to dominate a niche rather than appeal to all

8. Sell what you believe to be true in a way your intended audience would find most appealing

Find your rallying cry

In their book Revolt, Alex Lewis & Bridget Angear show that the most successful movements have memorable rallying cries that include a verb. They list “make poverty history”, “yes we can” and “black lives matter” as recent examples. I would add “make America great again” and “take back control”.

Verbs are, after all, ‘doing words’; since movements always eventually want to get people to do something, landing on the best possible verb for your campaign at the outset is a good idea.

In addition to the inclusion of the most appropriate verb, they suggest slogans should be three (or at most four) words long, be novel, distinctive and simple.

The ingredients for classic rallying cries are a verb, a problem and a solution. Some examples of these three ingredients in action:

• Take (verb) back (problem) control (solution)

• Make (verb) poverty (problem) history (solution)

• Make (verb) America great (solution) again (problem)

Amongst other things they advise writing as many examples as physically and mentally possible, ruling nothing out and with a little luck eventually the right set of word will present themselves; if it helps think of it as a hashtag or a phrase for a wristband you want supporters to wear.

Test and then amend or scale

At each stage of the process of creating a movement it’s important to use research to help confirm hypotheses that you have developed or steer you away from approaches that are likely to fall flat.

Whether it’s understanding if your ambition is seen as desirable by enough of the sorts of people you’re hoping to recruit, or deciding on the best logo, or choosing the most motivating rallying cry, there is no excuse to not do some form of test.

Online polls are incredibly easy to setup and can quickly give you a snapshot of what a large group of people think.

Running some ads on social media which use variations on imagery and copy will give you a very clear indication as to the sort of language and iconography that people will find inspiring.

And focus groups are always hugely informative; from the basic ‘speak to some friends who sort of represent the audience ’ to the more involved form where you recruit members of the public who fit the appropriate demographic / behavioural / attitudinal profile.

Electoral Commission proposals to reform political advertising don’t go far enough

Yesterday the Electoral Commission published their first report into spending around general election 2017, which included a series of suggested reforms aimed at providing further transparency in relation to political campaigning. Whilst they are to be welcomed, the recent self-regulatory action of tech platforms is far more significant and there’s still plenty more to do.

Electoral law sets out rules that apply to candidates, political parties and non-party campaigners who are aiming to influence the outcome of elections in the UK.

These rules aim to limit spending, provide transparency for voters about the sources of funding and provide clarity on what campaigning activity the money pays for.

The Electoral Commission – amongst other things – provides guidance on the rules, helps enforce adherence to the rules and publishes reports relating to the rules.

A problem facing the enforcement of these rules since social media became a dominant force in society is the fact that the ability to know which political ads are being run – and by whom – has been severely curtailed.

During recent elections and referenda political advertisers could run ads targeted at specific groups and be fairly confident of evading scrutiny of their messaging (provided that no pesky journalists were inadvertently served the ad) or how much was spent saying it. This social media advertising product is known as a ‘dark ad’.

I could have run £275,000 worth of political advertising on social media during the last general election – using money that was given to me by a shady Russian oligarch – and there’s a good chance that the Electoral Commission would be none the wiser.

People who saw my ads would have no idea that it was me who ran it, or who gave me the money to pay for it, and if they didn’t think the content was true, there was no regulatory body that they could report it to.

It’s no surprise then that shady practices have begun to develop.

Some groups, such as Vote Leave and Leave.EU, have been accused of accepting in-kind donations from people and companies outside the UK. This is illegal as political parties and campaigners in the UK are only allowed to accept domestic donations.

And some foreign states have been accused of meddling in elections by running ad campaigns; it is now proven for example that Russian-sponsored campaigns were seen by tens of millions of voters in the USA during their 2016 general election.

Did this happen during recent elections and referenda in the UK? Neither the Electoral Commission nor Parliament have any real way of knowing (but it would be very unusual, given events in France, Germany and the USA if it hadn’t).

If it did, it’s a pretty sizeable breach of our democracy and a reason to further regulate political advertising.

Yesterday the Electoral Commission published their first report into spending around general election 2017, which included a series of suggested reforms aimed at providing further transparency on sources of income and on how much money was spent and on which activities.

One suggestion is to require campaigners to include an ‘imprint’ – some wording as to who is responsible for the ads – on digital communications in the same way as is required of print media.

They also want a change in the way campaigners submit their expenditure so that there’s more clarity on where money is being spent. Currently there’s one umbrella category for all advertising; the Electoral Commission would like to know in future what was spent on social media, search, billboards etc… without having to sift through a load of receipts.

And the Electoral Commission would like improved punitive powers; the current limit on fines that can be issued is £20,000, which is a drop in the ocean for mainstream political parties who typically spend many millions of pounds on campaigning.

Whilst these are all good and reasonable suggestions that should certainly be adopted, there is nothing which would enable them to monitor bad actors that use the anonymity of the internet to run campaigns.

Fortunately for the Electoral Commission, the tech platforms have stepped in and self-regulated.

Facebook have stated that they are ending ‘dark ads’; going forwards people will be able to see all the ads a Page is running on Facebook, whether or not the person viewing is in the intended target audience for the ad.  They are also promising to create an archive of election related ads so that it’s easier for journalists and campaigners to hold sponsors of ads to account. Twitter have also promised similar measures.

This change will make a much bigger difference than any of the aforementioned reforms, as it will help provide transparency around the universe of messaging and targeting being used by campaigners.

Getting the platforms to make the changes wasn’t easy. It took US Senators to propose a bill called the “Honest Ads Act” and for Facebook, Twitter and Google’s senior executives to be hauled in front of a Congressional hearing.

We are the fortunate beneficiaries of the fact that the US government have taken the issue seriously; it’s a big step forwards for holding those who seek to influence elections using social networks to account.

The final and hugely important step to improving trust in political campaigns will be to create a system for pre-clearance of factual claims being made by political parties.

Until people have the confidence that facts and figures used to justify promises and attacks are independently fact-checked, there will be skepticism from the public about the truthfulness of campaigns and false information will continue to be able to affect the narrative of elections.

The Electoral Commission in their report reiterated the fact that they “do not regulate the content of political campaign messages or advertisements, including mis-information” and nor are they “seeking an extension to our remit to include these issues”.

The Electoral Commission’s fear is that if they are required to act as a fact-checker or “truth commission” for political advertising, they risk damaging their reputation for regulating political finance.

It’s an understandable position, but it’s a shame that they haven’t seen fit to include the creation of a body that could do so as part of their recommendations. It’s a glaring omission.

Social media, segmentation and political advertising

This week there have been three brilliant articles which give perspectives on political segmentation and running effective election campaigns using social media platforms.

Cambridge Analytica CEO talks to TechCrunch

Alexander Nix - politics elections social media segmentation targeting cambridge analytica

Alexander Nix, CEO of infamous advertising / technology firm Cambridge Analytics, gave a 50 minute interview to TechCrunch.  The full transcript is available as well as a short summary.

It’s a wide ranging discussion but the reader is left with many more clues as to the firm’s methodology and approach to communications.

Professor Mark Ritson on Facebook’s political segmentation

Facebook US 2016 political segmentation

Marketing professor Mark Ritson gives a brilliant ‘how to’ in political segmentation using Facebook’s US Presidential ‘16 work as a case study.  This guy really knows his onions. The first step to any political campaign is segmenting the electorate so if your business is winning elections this guide is worth bookmarking.

The Economist on how to game the attention economy

The Economist social media threat to democracy attention economy

The Economist have done a brilliant briefing on social media and politics.  It looks at the different ways in which social media is impacting politics but, more usefully for political practitioners, it gives a very savvy perspective on the sort of content that can thrive in the ‘attention economy’.

Would Trump win again one year on?

Donald Trump was elected as President of the USA on 8th November 2016 and has had a controversial first year in office.  If he were to run again one year on, would he win? An election taking place in Virginia 364 days after Trump’s victory will give us a good idea.

It’s a year since Donald Trump shocked the world and won the US Presidency. Highlights of his term so far include trying to ban people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the USA, defending white nationalists protesting in Charlottesville, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and travelling to the brink of nuclear war with North Korea.

Given Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and the consistent chorus of public outrage surrounding the current Presidency, it’s easy to assume that if another contest took place on the anniversary of the 2016 election, the Democratic candidate would end up in the White House.

That assumption is being put to the test in an election taking place on Tuesday 7th November to decide the next Governor of Virginia.

A bit of background on Virginia: it is historically a swing state; George W. Bush and Obama both won it twice; Hillary Clinton won the state by about five percentage points in 2016; and there is no incumbent as governors in Virginia can’t hold office for consecutive terms.

The Republican Party candidate, Ed Gillespie, has totally aligned himself with Trump’s agenda and the Democrat candidate, Ralph Northam, is from the Clinton (as opposed to Sanders) wing of his party.

Like Trump in ‘16, Gillespie is campaigning on the issue of tax cuts, job creation and reducing illegal immigration.  He has argued for the conservation of Confederate-era statues and complained about “sanctuary cities” (a city that limits its cooperation with the national government effort to enforce immigration law).  And he has relentlessly attacked his Democratic opponent.

Gillespie is hoping that by sticking closely to Trump’s Presidential agenda he will encourage a high turnout amongst conservative voters.

Northam is campaigning on abortion rights, the environment and is attacking his opponent as being a reactionary running a nasty, racist dog-whistle campaign.

The Democrat has more money to spend, has run more TV ads than his opponent and will be hoping to turnout the democratic base and add enough undecided women and ethnic minorities to beat his Republican opponent.

Again, this feels very familiar.

The race is seemingly too close to call with different polls showing widely different results; some have Northam with a double-digit lead and others have Gillespie just edging it.

Strategists in Washington D.C and beyond are watching the race closely. The result will give a good indication as to the mood of the electorate and will provide useful intel as to how to play mid-term elections in 2018.

And looking further ahead, if another Clinton-style candidate fails to succeed, it could influence perspectives on what type of nominee stands a chance of beating Trump in 2020.

Oxfam: tax avoidance hurts the world’s poor

Oxfam have released a new ad which dramatises the argument that tax avoidance deprives developing countries of funds for vital services.

The film is spectacular.

Shocking audiences of charity and NGO ads into action is incredibly hard; Oxfam have bravely tried an approach which doesn’t involve depicting real life poverty and deprivation and I strongly suspect their results will be better because of it.

The ghoulish movements and masks of the ‘thieves’ are genuinely unsettling.

The stylish framing of the shots, high production values and pacing of the edit make it feel akin to the opening sequence of a Hollywood film.

Whilst I felt the section where the ‘thieves’ were inflicting harm went on too long, there were a couple (the oxygen mask and the baby) where I felt genuine anguish.

Releasing the film on halloween is also clever – the scary nature of the story makes the content feel timely and relevant.

Add to this the fact that the ad is hugely provocative and it means that it’s very likely people will share it on social media (nothing spreads quite like outrage).

It’s such a shame – but ultimately understandable – that the first few seconds of the ad are given to an age restriction message; it must be very frustrating for the makers that a significant portion of people won’t be given the opportunity to be hooked into the story on their newsfeed as they’ll scroll straight past what looks like a black screen.

Regardless: top marks to Oxfam GB – definitely the best hijack of halloween this year.