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Undervaluing Grassroots: The Obvious Degree Of Separation

Looking back at the much talked about UK Election in June, it was like watching a car crash in slow motion, if, of course, the car was a Conservative Prius and the driver a certain Theresa May. As a cautionary tale in how not to run a successful grassroots campaign the Tories really showed the danger of dictating message from head office and undervaluing their grassroots network.

It might be hard to believe now but the Conservative Party have one of the greatest voter targeting and persuasion algorithms in the world. It’s called its grassroots network. The intelligence in party volunteers and staff at local and constituency level is all that is required to really know which voters should be contacted in the run-up to an election and what messages will work with them. These mental calculations are built on a lifetime of voter contact and an understanding of local issues. Harnessing the power of that grassroots network is what Conservative Party HQ struggled with this election.

The Snowflake Model of political campaigning, made famous by Obama, posits a strong central organizer (HQ) with delegated responsibility to the individual limbs of the snowflake, in this case, constituencies and wards. Technology can provide this single platform around which a party’s grassroots can be harnessed. With HQ at the center and campaign managers acting as the arms, control can be delegated to those people who understand their local area best. At the same time, HQ have access to campaign metrics and the real feedback from voters which they can use to amend the overall messaging or strategy. Although there is nothing revolutionary in this, the problem is often that HQ find it hard to cede control of local operations to the constituency campaign managers.

Politics is changing and the last 12 months have shown time and again that political parties are not responding quickly enough to the changes in public mood as a result of social media, fake news or, simply, unexpected narratives. Focusing on grassroots building and constant contact with voters can hedge against these unknowables entirely derailing an election campaign. If a voter is used to speaking to or hearing from a party volunteers then they become a very credible source to fight a damaging narrative with a simple email blast. So why aren’t we listening?

Great campaigning doesn’t need to be complex or arcane in order to succeed, but it does need to be local. Great voter targeting doesn’t require super-computers spewing out demographic information, but it does need careful note-taking by party supporters over many years. Great messaging doesn’t need genius PR consultants, but it does demand careful listening to the issues being picked up on the doorsteps and in the community. The challenge now for political parties like the Conservatives in the UK is whether root and branch are willing to connect better for the next election, whenever that may be.

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