Who paid for your vote?
I stopped taking any interest in day-to-day UK politics in September 2019. I left Twitter, skipped the BBC web site articles on the rolling coverage of Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn et al.
Why? Well, it wasn’t because I lost interest in politics. It was because I felt that there was a bigger picture that I missed out on. Something else was going to decide the next election and it wasn’t the weekly sparring between the party leaders at PMQs.
I felt I had to get far away from the daily mud-slinging to stand a chance seeing what it was.
Instead, I read widely and talked to lots of interesting people. I don’t for a moment delude myself that I now have insight into the entirety of UK political life and what drives it, but two threads have caught my attention.
First, money. £5 million in donations were given to the Tory party in one week in November, but only £200k to Labour in the same week. The largest donation at the time to the Conservative was from Peter Hargreaves, co-founder of an investment platform, worth over 3 billion.
Second, technology. A million pounds buys a lot of targeted Facebook imprints. And online messaging through social media is now key to winning elections.
Neither is new, but both now have a massive impact on who we in the UK choose to elect to Westminster.
Labour went into the election with an advantage on the doorstep but their army of pamphlet deliverers and canvassers withered against targeted advertising delivered via Facebook and other social media platforms.
The power of political social media advertising is that it doesn’t just appear as advertising but is then spread through likes and retweets.
“I don’t trust politicians,” voters think, “but if their message comes to me via my friends on social media who are like me, I will absorb the message as if my friends wrote it.”
And there is no room for nuance in the world of online political advertising. The mental void which Labour’s messages used to inhabit was filled with simple and clear sound bites such as “get BREXIT done” and “oven-ready”.
Online political advertising works. I strongly recommend watching Carol Cadwalladers’ TED talk and Leighton Andrews TEDx talk, below (Disclosure: the writer co-ran this event). If they are only half accurate in what they say, then voters in the aggregate are heavily influenced by effective political messages.
Of course, as a leader of a political party, Jeremy Corbyn provided generous material for opposing parties to scare voters rigid with such crafted sound bites.
Online targeted political advertising, reinforced by print media, scared voters about a future Labour government setting off down a path of haphazard nationalisation, supporting terrorists, and doing/not doing BREXIT as appropriate.
And so, to Wales. The importance of online advertising through social media sites present an obvious challenge to anyone who wants to win the hearts and minds of the people of Wales.
Will Plaid Cymru or Yes Cymru be showered with money by millionaires with which they can reach voters online with clear messages on Westminster and Independence?
Or will politics in Wales over the next 10 years be shaped by very rich people who live outside the country donating to the Conservative party, whose weapons-grade online warfare will continue to the shape of Welsh Politics as a side effect?
My guess is the latter.
It’s unlikely that the current party of Government at Westminster, the primary beneficiary of private donor’s money and effective online political message dissemination, will seek to make significant legislative changes in the next five years to even up the funding and online messaging balance.
Whether party donors, Facebook, Google and friends will have their wings clipped, with a ban or restrictions on political advertising, could be determined by the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election in November.
In fact, the US election could well have a bigger impact on the future of politics and well-being in Wales than the 2021 Assembly elections.