There were plenty 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.
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?
Virtually no mention, though, of Axelrod’s two mates who come as part of the package, just like in a transfer window deadline football deal.
Doubtless there is, as reported, a “marriage of minds” between Miliband and Axelrod, but I reckon the deal-maker was less A-rod’s mind than another Obama aide, Larry Grisolano, described as “a specialist in micro-targeting”.
I don’t pretend fully to understand micro-targeting, but I do get, and somewhat resent, its democratic implications. First, though, as Mike Yarwood’s Max Bygraves would say: I wanna tell you a story.
When my father died in the early 1990s, I was semi-seriously asked, by a friend who’d heard me talk about him and knew Essex was my home county, if he was an ‘Essex Man’.
The label was initially a political one, coined a couple of years earlier to describe a type of brash, materialistic, uncultured 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.
The last part half-fitted. My father was an enthusiastic Thatcherite, hard-working and aspirational before these adjectives became clichés, and his family had moved from Leytonstone in East London.
However, we weren’t ‘new town’. We lived in commuter/day tripper territory on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. Moreover, my father, while certainly fonder of dogs than foreigners, didn’t own a Rottweiler, didn’t touch alcohol – let alone pints of champagne in City wine bars – or rent a council house with a satellite dish on the roof and a ‘new motor’ outside. And he could read – real books.
His nationalised industry job and economic self-interest should have made him a natural Labour voter, yet he heartily detested Harold Wilson and was a lifelong, bullish Conservative, who browbeat my mother into (at least saying) she voted likewise. A Conservative, then, long before Thatcher, not because of her – and definitely 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 our electoral system and how it meant 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 May 7, 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. Flattering, or creepy?
Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham