Mile End Institute

In 2015, it could be the data wot won it

2015 General Election Commentary at QMUL Mile End Institute

From March until 7 May, the Mile End Institute will invite experts from QMUL and beyond to contribute ideas, analysis and commentary on the 2015 UK General Election. In this post, Dr Peter Allen considers the role of 'big data' in the modern campaign. 

10 April 2015

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This should have been an exciting election campaign. For the first time in recent memory, we have in our midst a genuinely multi-party contest. Even David Butler doesn't know who is going to win.

Despite these great expectations, the campaign thus far has felt rather flat and ponderous. Even the mantras are tedious: less “yes we can”, more “long-term economic plan”. 

We were (perhaps naively) hoping for Technicolor; a clash of ideas and ideologies – fought against the backdrop of a UK whose future is by no means clear. What we’ve had so far is best illustrated by the damp image of poor old Nick Clegg, standing forlornly in a car park. Believe!

That it’s felt a bit dull is, to a certain extent, precisely what some of the political parties (certainly The Conservatives) want. Slow, steady, no surprises. One-liner policy summaries were locked down (although not very securely) months ago, tags were hashed, itineraries finessed and polished.

Why? Because for political parties, uncertainty can mean losing control of the all-important narrative, and a may well mean losing the election. Welcome to the age of the data-driven campaign.

The laboratory campaign

Good data allows party planners and strategists to create a campaign that feels less like a boxing ring and more like a laboratory. Parties test and tweak carefully honed campaigning models that have been months in the planning, while human error – that great source of electoral colour – is feared and controlled. These models are based on enormous and unprecedented data collection efforts and extensive analysis of individual voters, constituency trends, and national swings.

Parties don’t want a messy, unpredictable, Gladiatorial battle – they’ve learned the lessons of others (particularly US campaigns) and are catching on to the untapped power of the data revolution. Expect less spontaneity, fewer unpredictable ‘game-changers’ (witness David Cameron’s hostility to the big ticket head-to-head) and a ground war that focuses on ‘swing constituencies’ like never before.

Whether the Conservatives have the nerve to stick with their own plan – given yesterday’s widely reported jitters – may well be prove critical in the coming weeks. When the mood moves and the perceived wisdom changes, even the most rigidly planned and data-rich campaign may amount to naught. Elections remain, despite efforts to the contrary, wonderfully human and deliciously messy.

Good news for voters

While data-driven politics can (at least when things go to plan for the parties) extract some of the fun from politics, but there’s lots of good news too. One of the functions of social science is to provide what Mark Blyth calls a ‘sniff test’ - to highlight, sniff out, and refute, bullshit. Data-driven research is surely one of the best ways to do this. Last week, for example, we saw the IFS destroy Conservative claims about Labour’s alleged tax plans.

Similarly, long-term data collation efforts from multiple academic election forecasting teams such as Polling Observatory and Election Forecast, have brought a welcome sobriety to the nightly revelry associated with the release of new individual opinion polls. By focusing on long-term data that places seemingly aberrant polls in context, these academics have been able to foreground the long game of the election and cut down, at least in part, on hysterical horse race media coverage.

Voters too can draw from ‘big data’ to help them make an informed choice. With the help of various easy to use online applications, voters can learn about their constituency, their candidates, and their own personal preferences in greater detail, and with greater simplicity, than ever before. Applications like Who Gets My Vote – a collaboration between Queen Mary University of London and Queen’s University Belfast – match voters with the party that best reflects their views. At a time when just 16 per cent of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth, a cynic might say that this is exactly the kind of thing the political parties don’t want voters to access. 

That may well be the case. Either way, it is clear that the proliferation of these tools has the potential to create a more informed, and de-aligned, electorate than that which has gone before. In some European countries up to 40 per cent of voters have used these applications to help them decide who to vote for. As multi-party politics establishes itself in Britain and people look beyond the major parties when casting their vote, we could well see the same happening here.

It is inevitable that the role of data will grow in British elections. For the media and those interested in the spectacle of the horse-race, this may signal a period in which our campaigns have an even more pre-cooked look about them. Never fear though, politicians will still screw up – good data or not.

Meanwhile, these new technologies will allow parties and voters to know more about each other. For voters at least, this data-driven politicking has the potential to increase the amount of information we have about our politicians, their policies, and our own political opinions. That can only be a good thing. In 2015, it could be the data wot won it.

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About the author

Peter's research interests are focused on political behaviour, political ambition, representation, and gender and politics. He has published work in the journals Political Studies, Parliamentary Affairs, British Politics, Politics, and The Political Quarterly.

He regularly discusses his research in the media, with recent appearances including Radio 4, BBC 1, and Bloomberg News. He also uses his research to advise the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons in addition to the Local Government Association and Fabian Society.