Representative Democracy has, since its inception, involved campaigning as the nation is asked to vote on an election of representatives. As we face up to a rapidly changing political climate, it is important to ask ourselves how this electioneering takes place as well as how it might change in years to come.
The 2017 General Election saw Theresa May mocked for her relentless repetition of ‘soundbites’. One would have been hard pressed to find an interview in which the Tory leader did not mention ’strong and stable leadership’. Many blame Sir Lynton Crosby, whose company were payed no less than £4 million by the Conservative Party for their campaign advice. After all, it was his advice to focus on Mrs May as an individual and to use the soundbite technique. The issue was that these two principles did not function particularly well together. It was a recurring criticism of Theresa May that she seemed to lack a personality altogether; she came across somewhat like a broken record, repeating the same lines every interview. This lack of spontaneity in the face of a newly energised Jeremy Corbyn made many voters’ decisions easy. Not only do soundbites affect the appearance of candidates, but they seem to do an injustice to policy and presume a certain naivety on behalf of voters. Rarely were the details of a Tory plan for Brexit discussed further than ’we need the strongest hand possible going into these tough negotiations’. This statement is rather problematic: it does not answer the question of actual policy towards Brexit, nor does it actually prove who is the ‘stronger hand’. In masking any decent political debate with circular phrases, it is assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the voter makes their decision completely irrationally, and that they are incapable of questioning what is being said. This is a system which credits the voters with less than they deserve and is detrimental to the party.
After the results of the 2017 Election, I doubt Mr Crosby will be on speed-dial for the Tories come the next election. More importantly, though, have soundbites breathed their last breath? Well, it’s fair to say that people will be more aware of them the next time Britain is asked to vote. If they were somehow designed to deceive the populous, by the ‘art of rhetorical misdirection’, their trick won’t work again. We can only hope that televised debates will see, therefore, less ad hominem, more spontaneity and proper political debate. It is surely in the interest of all parties (no pun intended) to campaign on the basis of their ideas and policies rather than their best one liners. In any case, to produce soundbites as a response to well-thought-through policy will, I predict, no longer be a successful tactic. Unlucky Lynton! We’ve wised up!
Recently, the internet has been used increasingly as a platform for political parties to canvass for votes. The benefits of digital electioneering are twofold: the general message can be spread wider more quickly and the message of the advertisement can be specifically directed at a certain type of user. One has only to think of the Conservative banners scattered around the web which urged voters to avoid a ’coalition of chaos’. According to Dominic Cummings, 98% of Vote Leave’s funds were spent on advertising online. These adverts are placed on sites such as YouTube and Facebook, and can be targeted with high precision thanks to the data owned by social media companies. For example, an advert focused on educational policy might be directed to parents only. According to a study by ‘Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation’ in 2016, 44% of American adults get their news from Facebook.
It wouldn’t be unusual to question the morality of this; is it right for social media companies to use this sort of data in the first place? What I think is more important, though, is how little scrutiny there is on online campaigning. The Electoral Commission obliges parties to record their spending on advertising but not the content itself. What’s to stop parties from making incongruous claims and promises to different groups of people? I imagine that alongside tougher legislation on social media companies to censor content based on radicalisation, grooming, etc. there will be calls for political campaigning online to be properly regulated. It is hard to see, though, how this is possible. What can be said for sure is that the ‘world-wide-web’ will most likely be where the political battles of the future are lost and won, with the youth vote largely dependent on internet interaction.
It’s hard to say exactly what will happen in the electoral campaigns of 2022 and beyond, but one thing can be said with confidence: question all that you hear from politicians (as if you needed reminding!)
This was an article orginally written for ‘Ink’, a student-led school magazine. The online editions of ‘Ink’ can be found here.