How the big UK parties utilise technology for canvassing & voter management…

UK political parties and constituencies are going through a period of ‘change-and-upgrade’ in relation to their campaign practices and constituency management. Ever since social media became a must-have for politicians there has been a pressure to manage their public life through digital means. In most respects, the US still leads the way in this type of engagement and there, politicians have now moved to digital organising to manage everything from volunteers to canvassing to donations. Even though politics is different in most countries this type of engagement is certainly the way things are going in the UK also.

The Labour Party have been using a US software provider, NationBuilder, for a number of years to manage their voter databases and establish online presence for them in the form of websites. The Tories have worked through three different iterations of a voter outreach app for their constituencies, none of which have yet captured the imagination of constituency teams. Sinn Fein are well known for their Twitter presence with Gerry Adams going so far as to publish a book of his tweets, for those of us who missed his wisdom in real-time! The UK Green Party use Ecanvasser to manage voter outreach and track issues in their community. The Lib Dems use Connect from US company NGP Van. The SNP have also tried NationBuilder but have since fallen back on their own systems of voter tracking.

In the international context, the UK is still far behind the US and, to a lesser extent, behind Australia and Canada in terms of digital organising. It is, however, a good bit ahead of many countries in Europe where data protection laws are more restrictive on information that is allowed to be held on citizens. Germany, for example, does not allow political parties to hold a constituent database so they are forced to campaign ‘blind’, not knowing what a person’s political leanings are. What is clear is that UK parties are making a great effort to catch up with the latest best practice and what is also apparent is the slew of US political consultants that are lining up to work with UK parties. For example, the Remain campaign and Theresa May’s leadership run both employed US consultants to advise on strategy and messaging.

So, we can see that digital campaigning is a process that has certainly begun in the UK, but is not yet fully established. It is obvious that nobody has yet got to the point of, say, the Democratic Party in the US where there is a very complete database of voters with a multitude of information points on each person. There is no party that has developed a reliable and user-friendly way of tracking voters and managing contact with them. The Democrats, as the advance guard of campaigning, marry this national voter database with sophisticated canvassing tools and huge grassroots operations. The UK parties are not a million miles behind but they do not find it easy to translate intention into action on the ground. As local organisers become more familiar with digital organising techniques this is likely to change quickly.

In fact, the Party HQ versus constituency office view on campaigning and constituency management is very different, and, as a result, very interesting to the outside observer. Party HQ’s want to build their own data collection instruments and get constituencies to then do the data collection. The Tories have VoteSource and Labour have Contact Creator. This serves their need for national data in order to drive policy. It is also important that they are seen to be modernising, even if it isn’t changing much at local level.

However, at that local level, constituency managers and campaign organisers usually operate their own systems of organising along with the systems sent down from HQ. It is rare though to find a constituency that doesn’t still use a mixture of Excel sheets, pen-and-paper and elbow grease to manage voter contact. Bespoke systems of voter contact are very common with ad hoc apps or data science wizardry bolstering their efforts.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that constituencies are hugely suspicious of party HQ and what is seen as their meddling in constituency matters. Added to that, individual candidates and politicians within constituencies are also hugely suspicious of each other, often as they are in direct competition with each other. This leads to campaign management intelligence being siloed and the implementation of a national level system being made all the more difficult.

It seems what is required is a system whereby constituencies are given the control over their local area campaigning while party HQ is still fed the key data points that they need for developing policy. Though HQ’s will say that this structure is in place, the noises from the constituencies suggest otherwise. It would be surprising if one of the parties in the UK do not finally grasp digital organising by the scruff of the neck in the coming years. One party showing the way, ala the Democrats in the US, would lead all other parties to go with them if they are not to get left behind.

Brendan Tobin works with Ecanvasser, a campaign management and voter database software.

  • Jon Hope

    The US is simply on another level with regards to both the availability of voter (and voting) data and liberalisation of laws regarding it’s proliferation, not to mention the abundance of capital ready to exploit it.

    Ultimately for any software to be effective and successful it would have to offer each client more than simply a rearrangement of the data they can collect themselves. I’ve been really interested in this field for a while but so far seen very little this side of the pond that has been worth exploring as yet.

    If the laws were liberalised at an EU level maybe it’d become an interesting prospect. Dangerous privacy concerns though.

  • Gordon Guthrie

    This is simply not true – the UK’s election software is usually in advance of the US because the US parties are not ‘parties’ in the same sense – being partly nationalised. Internal organisation (the primaries) are organised by the individual states and not by the local parties as they are in the UK (selection contests).

    The US elections typically have a database of canvasses for the most recent election – with previous electoral data – and data for other races (congress, senate, state assembly and urban elections) held separately – often in private/consultant hands. UK parties have a single view of user-data across many elections and many tiers of Government.

    US election efforts then are major data cleansing exercises in a way that UK ones aren’t.

    The SNP didn’t use Nation Builder – the Yes Campaign did. The SNP continues to use Activate (full-disclosure: I put Activate prototype in in 2004), previously I was in Scotitish Computing For Labour).

    If you look at renormalised participation rates in US and UK elections (number of volunteers per 100,000 voters, etc, etc) the US remains behind the UK in many respects.

    The major difference between UK and US politics was that in the US television advertising was allowed – whereas in the UK it wasn’t. With the rise of the internet and crash in TV viewing UK political adversing has been ‘normalised’ the parties can spend infinite amounts on internet advertising – this is the key difference and the major change.

  • The SNP used NationBuilder in the 2011 elections, when they got their overall majority. They collected an email list of 50,000 in 90 days, by having a team quickly following up positive retweets and shares, starting conversations and getting the people to sign online petitions. All that was explained in a talk in Dublin in June 2011 by their communications strategist. Since then, like the Conservatives, they have used NationBuilder to manage volunteers, and other systems to manage data on voters. Labour mainly uses NationBuilder at constituency branch level, as do parts of the Green Party of England and Wales, while UKIP fails to make use of it.

    But the real difference in the USA is twofold.

    1. Really sophisticated data science to analyse voter behaviour. I went to a talk in London by a student who had done a placement with a UK company that did data analysis for US election campaigns. Through a nested set of decision trees, his model explained 90% of the variance in the probability to vote by voters in North Carolina. He could make use of much more data, collected from both public and commercial sources, and also special polls run by the party. It turned out that the probability of voting was influenced by the pychological profile of the voter: neurotics voted, affable people didn’t bother. This was the second or third strongest factor, after a history of having voted in the same type of election before.

    2. Tools that masses of untrained supporters can use, like the mobile phone canvassing software produced by the Bernie Sanders campaing (fieldthebern.com). Supporters anywhere in the USA could get local lists of registered Democrats, knock on their doors and go through a simple script, recording and uploading the data on the spot.

    I gave a talk on this to the Oxford Data Science meetup a year ago, after the General Election.

  • aquifer

    Oh for the life of a swashbuckling Brexiteer, telling the masses what they want to hear.

  • dodrade99

    If the Democrats system is so good why didn’t they see Trump’s rise in the rustbelt coming, in particular the Wisconsin debacle?

  • Harry Meneely

    “If the laws were liberalised at an EU level”

    Maybe you haven’t noticed Jon,but Britain is leaving the EU and its laws.

  • aquifer

    So the Tories can use funding from big business to deliver tailored messages to particular electors.

    Maybe the Tories can now fool enough of the people all of the time to stay elected.