If you asked me to list the Conservative manifesto NHS policies I could give them to you off the top of my head, in the back of a noisy pub; 50,000 nurses, 40 new hospitals, 6000 new GPs, 6000 practice staff, £33.4bn a year increased funding by 2024.
My wife asked me what the Labour NHS policy was, and I was stunned to realise I couldn’t give her a single line.
The Tory vows were dubious at best, criticised and fact-checked repeatedly and publicly. 50,000 nurses were actually just 14,000 new placements, 40 new hospitals were just 6 confirmed builds on old sites. The promise of 6000 GPs was paper-thin considering since the Tories last promised that number in 2015 the GP workforce actually FELL by 1600.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking such mendacious proposals would be damaging, when the reality was quite the opposite. The controversy over these claims paradoxically amplified them, in the papers and online; as detractors share their disdain, and supporters share their support, everybody is sharing the same messages. They were playing with a double-sided coin.
When Donald Trump won the US Presidency Dave Chappelle famously quipped “The US has elected its first Internet troll ”. I think we just elected the second.
This “troll” effect of the Internet is the phenomenon whereby a severe negative reaction to an item garners as much or more exposure than a mildly positive one. For example, despite the general liberal and left leaning politics of the Twittersphere, “Katie Hopkins” or “Tommy Robinson” will routinely trend nationally at number 1. The vast majority are negative reactions to whatever the story is, but crucially they are reactions nonetheless. “There is no such thing as bad publicity” has never been truer in an age where shares, comments and mentions have real monetary value.
Consider Boris Johnson’s infamous “letterboxes and bank robbers” article. Written during his original run for Prime Minister, superficially the controversy meant the national conversation, fuelled by outrage, kept the name “Boris” on everybody’s lips, on both sides of the argument.
On a deeper level, this was a deliberate hat-nod to the extremist end of his party, to the Brexit fringe and beyond, and the deliberately inflammatory article extended it’s impact far beyond the reach a subtler opinion piece in the Times ever would have. The medium through which he reaches then? The angry protestations of those who opposed him. Like trying to put out a fire with more fire. Or a machine gun.
The problem is we don’t have time for context and we don’t have the attention span even if we did. As a culture, especially online, but in newspapers as well, we have an increasingly limited attention span. The reason for this is a whole other article in itself, and it’s as biological as it is cognitive. Even by simple reading this far, you’re already in a small minority.
The other effect of social media and increasingly divisive newspapers, is continuous confirmation of whatever you believe, and the exclusion of all that challenges it. This creates very strong, very polarised environments which do not allow the context or subtlety of actual reality to grow there.
For the undecided voter who might hear a lot of coverage about “50,000 nurses” for example will not pay too much attention to the context either way. The take home message stays the same: “50,000 nurses”. Sounds good.
The most famous example of this was “that” red bus, now a byword for brazen lies, and yet you’d be hardpressed to find ANYONE who couldn’t tell you exactly what it said. The rules have changed, and we must react and innovate with them.
So how do you challenge or call out misinformation on social media without inadvertently promoting it? I wish I knew. Sadly, on reflection I probably promoted it as much as I tried to push back against it. I suppose the same rules of dealing with mendacious political parties apply to internet trolls:
1) Don’t feed them. Share information that counters theirs without directly retweeting or sharing the original post. E.g. The government has only promised 6 hospital builds on existing sites. There are no plans to build more than this.
2) Even better, don’t repeat what they say, even to correct it. Just state the counterpoint in isolation. “The government has no plans to build more than 6 hospital buildings on existing sites”
3) I wonder if simply ignoring is even better. I honestly don’t know.
Now what CAN I tell you off the top of my head from the Labour manifesto on the biggest issue for me, the NHS? I read the manifesto once for details and the only one I can recall is a 4.3% annual increase in funding. That’s MORE than the Tories promised, but if it was mentioned at all in any debate I missed it, and I am super engaged. Joe Bloggs on the street never stood a chance.
So what you might say? The media battle was decidedly uphill for Labour, as documented in this terrifying study from LSE, coupled to some very questionable editorial decisions at the BBC. To which I’ll say: exactly. When you lose a battle with such high stakes it’s churlish to shrug your shoulders and blame the battlefield. Especially when the next fight is already looming and the battlefield is not going to change.
You might say you don’t want a slick media savvy party, you don’t care what they look like; it’s the policies and the person that’s important. To which I’ll say: exactly. Some will vote for the principle, whether it is suited and booted or bearded and tie-dyed. But there are millions who WILL vote on their personal impressions, no matter how superficial, and their votes matter as much as anyone else’s. Probably more in fact, because theirs is the balance of power.
I read this this morning: “The Tories can tell lies better than Labour can tell the truth”. I would go further; the Tories were successful at getting us to tell their lies to each other.
So what can we learn from this?
If your ultimate goal is to change society, then change requires power. Power in a democracy requires people, people to vote and people to persuade others to do the same.
The Tories understand their voters far better than Labour did. Attention spans are short, bottom lines are being closely watched, and everyone is endlessly angry. Their policies passed the “pub filter”, three or four words you can shout in a pub, and everyone understands and is on board e.g. “Get Brexit Done”. It’s not true, Brexit may take a decade and No Deal will be worse, but that didn’t matter. It won.
What could’ve been the Labour sloganeering equivalent? “Enough is enough”? “Fix This Mess” perhaps? Even recycling old Tory tropes would’ve worked well: Britain is far more “Broken” now than it was in 2015. Even “Take Back Control” seems truer now than it did in 2016.
The Tories kept to their messages, evaded all serious critique and had a notoriously light manifesto. The Labour party seemed to announce a new outlandish policy every day. Even in my group of left-leaning mates we couldn’t really understand why free broadband was a priority right now. Fiscal credibility is another unwarranted uphill battle for Labour, so ignoring that was another own goal.
Lastly, the Tory campaign was negative and malicious, but also ruthless. They never failed to seize upon any chance to damage their opponents. Labour had so much to choose from; by every objective measure all the institutions that the average person relies upon are failing: the NHS, police, schools, transport, the economy. They could’ve run a whole campaign that simply said “The state of this”, and nothing else.
Hindsight is 20-20, which is why it is so important to look back and scour the battlefield for anything that will help in the next. For the NHS alone Labour should’ve kept to short, repetitive messaging ; “We will fix the NHS, with £75bn in new spending, 100,000 nurses in ten years through recruit, retain and train and 10,000 GPs by 2029.” Yes, Brexit clouded everything, which was why it was even more important for lean messaging to be able to slice through.
You might argue copying the Tory campaign tactics is the last thing we should do. “When they go low, we go high” as Michelle and Barack Obama were famous for saying. But the Obama campaign exemplified a lot of the same tactics the Tories used. Effective, simple messaging: “Yes We Can”. Headline policies: “Affordable healthcare.”, “End the war in Iraq” They even had a logo. Whatsmore the Obama campaign typified the use of technology, especially social media.
These are all simply tools, that can be used the right way or the wrong, like anything else. The Obama’s also ran the most effective people-powered ground campaign in human history. Labour is far better resourced at least there, if it could stop fighting itself.
And it must stop. For the task ahead is gargantuan. For Labour to win back power in 2024, it will need the biggest swing in UK parliamentary history. We will need every weapon, every tool in the box. By then the digital and demographic landscape will be drastically different as well and they will need new tools, new strategies and an effective means to deploy them.
There’s no shame in defeat, but there is tragedy in learning nothing from it. We must learn.