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Political Micro-targeting: Why It Won't Happen at the Next Election

26/08/2014 16:17 BST | Updated 25/10/2014 10:59 BST

The long march to the 2015 general election has begun. Gove's unceremonious sacking, Blair's unsolicited election advice, photo opportunities and political manoeuvring. Behind all the spin, there is a growing interest in how the coming election might actually be contested. Many look to the US for some indication of what developments might feature in the 2015 campaigns.

Somearehoping that 2015 might be the year micro-targeting comes to the UK. The 2012 Presidential campaigns constituted history's most technologically advanced electoral contest. The Obama campaign in particular was characterised by digital innovation, including a slick, reactive social media campaign, digital crowd-funding and powerful voter mobilisation tools. At the heart of their campaign was 'micro-targeting'. In simple terms micro-targeting is the analysis of huge, detailed databases of information on each citizen. The evaluation of this information is then used to inform strategy, personalise campaign messaging and prioritise party resources.

The hiring of a number of high profile ex-Obama campaigners by British parties has fuelled speculation that this election might see the introduction of micro-targeting to the United Kingdom. Miliband has appointed Obama's campaign mastermind David Axelrod as strategic advisor (despite 'Labour sources' using him as an example of tokenistic election guru hiring a few months before). Labour has also hired Briton Matthew McGregor, the 'digital attack dog' responsible for the Democrats' rapid social media responses to Romney's gaffes during the 2012 election. The Conservatives have hired Obama's big data strategist Jim Messina.

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Impressive though they are, the employment of these individuals does not mean that micro-targeting will take place in 2015. Messina is a strategist, not a technological expert. McGregor is an excellent online campaigner, not a micro-targeting guru. Micro-targeting demands more than a few knowledgeable individuals. It is a complex strategic tool that requires extensive technical expertise, access to relevant data, technological capacity and extensive funding. No British political parties can furnish these requirements.

British political parties are, of course, digitally literate. All three major parties maintain databases on voters and potential voters, based on information taken from the electoral register and gathered by local party activists and public sources. This data helps map out the electorate and inform strategy. Labour uses Nation Builder and the Contact Creator System. The Conservatives are struggling to renovate their database Merlin, after an embarrassing tech-failure during the Eastleigh by-election. The Lib-Dems have the Voter Activation Network. However, the information on these platforms is meagre compared to that on American party databases, and the coverage is only partial, falling far short of the detail required for micro-targeting.

Moreover, the emerging strategies of the main parties in 2015 are not informed by, or based around, micro-targeting. Late last year it was reported that the Conservatives had divided the 2015 electorate into eight target segments, from 'disaffected Tories' to 'urban strugglers', a technique that would have been familiar in the nineties. More impressively, in 2011 the SNP, one of the most technologically sophisticated political parties in the UK, used its voter database Activate to prioritise efforts towards the 20 demographic groups they thought most pliable. Yet both of these examples pale in comparison to the Democrats' efforts in 2012, where every single American citizen was assigned a probability score across multiple dimensions - likelihood of donating, of voting, of supporting Obama and so on - as a means of directing the allocation of campaign time and resources.

Effective micro-targeting fundamentally requires a wealth of individual-level data. Tiffany Washburn, a former Democrat analyst, wrote late last year that replicating the Obama campaign's analytical sophistication in Britain is a 'daunting, maybe impossible task.' The Democrats were able to build up a detailed database containing every voter in the country, as a result of records kept over numerous election cycles by the party apparatus, state and national registers. This information formed only the basic foundation of the data, which was then enhanced by census and consumer data. In Europe and the UK where there are stricter (and more complex) privacy and data usage laws, such an effort represents a serious legal challenge for political parties. A recent legal study found that a strict reading of the UK Data Protection Act suggests that even voter-related information in the public domain is not fair game for political parties.

The cost is also an issue. Micro-targeting is very expensive, especially in terms of initial capital investment in tech infrastructure. American elections are not only conducted on a much larger scale, but are much more expensive in terms of cost per vote. In 2012 the Democrats spent around £6.10 per vote, the Republicans £4.20. By contrast, in the UK the Conservatives spent £1.55 per vote, Labour £0.93, and the Liberal Democrats £0.70. This expenditure will increase in 2015 - the electoral commission is increasing campaign funding levels - but not to anything like the level in the US.

So despite what some activists and commentators hope, the next election will not feature micro-targeting proper. Political parties in the UK face a number of obstacles that mean while the next election might feature more sophisticated use of voter databases, and even more intelligent targeting, American-style micro-targeting is off the cards. In fact, it might not even be an option at the 2020 election. European data protection laws are already some of the strictest in the world. Far from liberalising, the trend across the EU is towards greater restrictions on the use of personal data. Besides, there is nothing to suggest the kind of increase in campaign funding that micro-targeting would require, even in the long-term.

For now, and perhaps for a while to come, it looks like Labour will continue to pursue 'Aldi Mums', while the Tories butter up 'Anxious Aspirationals'.