Are we in for the dirtiest general election campaign so far?

Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash

On May 22, 2024, Sunak finally announced the date of the next General Election: July 4. As the polls show, he has quite a challenge to win – or even to prevent Labour from securing an outright majority.

But the Conservative Party is traditionally one of the world’s most effective election-winning machines, and it would be complacent not to assume that all of that machinery will be running at full steam for the next six weeks.

So what should we expect?

Because the strengths and weaknesses of the two camps lie in completely different areas, the contest will be asymmetric, and may well be the dirtiest in modern British history:

  • The Conservatives’ track record over the last 14 years is a huge advantage for Labour; but
  • The campaigning resources officially and unofficially open to the Conservatives are far more powerful than those available to Labour; and
  • They will apply those resources – legally or not – in the dirtiest but most sophisticated campaign we have ever seen.

We should brace ourselves – and not be taken in.

The last 14 years is a huge advantage for Labour

Fourteen long years of increasingly far-right policies have left the UK visibly broken: we have a cost-of-living crisis; our NHS is on its knees and our schools are crumbling; and we have rivers flowing with sewage and an unaddressed climate emergency.

The UK economy – particularly since Brexit – has been almost stagnant.

Most people in the UK are poorer today than they were in 2010 – you have to go back 100 years to find a comparable period of mass impoverishment.

The NHS is badly damaged and could fail – and if it does, the UK economy will fail with it.

The chart above is shocking – but more shocking still is the government’s response: to accuse Britons of having adopted a ‘sick-note culture’ and to penalise those who cannot work.

And the government has taken as much care of the environment as it has of 99% of the British population. We now have rivers and coastal waters flowing with sewage – while the water companies seek to impose huge price rises. And in some parts of the country, tap water is no longer safe to drink. Even more fundamentally, the government has turned its back on climate science. As part of his speech, Sunak claimed to have: “prioritised energy security and your family finances over environmental dogma in our approach to Net Zero.” In practice, this has meant listening to fossil-fuel interests ahead of climate scientists.

The Conservatives are turning what used to be a prosperous, democratic, northern European country into a third-world island where only the very wealthy can thrive. If they could find a way to win – or even to prevent Labour from gaining a sufficient vote share to drive significant change – they will be able to complete the job.

All of this gives tremendous ammunition to Labour, and in a symmetric battle, they would be assured of winning the next election.

The resources available to the Conservatives are far more powerful

But this is not a symmetric battle. As we wrote in 2022,

“The battle in the UK is not the traditional competition between parties, but a much more dangerous struggle between a small number of billionaires and the bulk of the UK population.”

And those market fundamentalist billionaires have access to enormous resources. We explored these resources and what the Conservatives’ backers might be planning to do with them recently.

We concluded that they would aim to mobilise all these resources to keep the Labour vote as low as possible. If the Conservatives can find a way to win, great – but as long as Labour cannot deliver, the Conservatives will be back in power with a mandate to finish the job.

When you realise that more than 60% of readers in the UK consume media owned by one of four off-shore, tax-avoiding billionaires with a strong vested interest in this government remaining in power and that, to a surprising extent, the broadcast media follow the lead set by the press, you can start to see the risk. And when you think about how they can use social media, the risk becomes far greater.

The coming battle is one in which the Conservatives will have their lines amplified uncritically, while Labour will struggle to get air-time and column inches.

We should expect the dirtiest but most sophisticated campaign we have ever seen

The Conservative supporting machine will focus on getting us to believe messages such as those below.

At first glance, this looks ludicrous: no one would believe all of these – in fact many of them flatly contradict others. But that is not the point: if they can get us to believe just one of them, they have been successful. Once you believe one of these assertions, even if you do not vote for the Conservatives, you are less likely to vote against them – and in our first-past-the-post system, where only two parties can realistically win the next election, that is critical. If you think about it, you have probably heard (different) people asserting all 12 already.

But, realistically, how can they expect to persuade us of these things?

As the Brexit campaign showed, modern political campaigning is extremely sophisticated and involves micro-targeting of individuals based on their personality profiles.

Many political campaigns today involve using weapons-grade Psyops (psychological operations) against the citizenry. Using mass data harvesting and micro-segmentation of the population, modern political campaigns are able to target individuals with messages they will find resonant and which appear to come from the sort of source – and via the sort of media – they trust. A modern campaign can, in effect, surround each of us with a personally tailored wall of misinformation that is extremely convincing.

To do this, parties enlist the help of companies like Cambridge Analytica and its successor Emerdata which have been involved in Brexit (at least) in the UK and the Trump campaign in the US, as well as more recent elections such as that of Ferdinand Marcos Jr in the Philippines.

The diagram below is far less sophisticated than the level of targeting they employ, but is enough to illustrate the point.

In this diagram we, the UK population, are segmented into seven groups (this segmentation is based on the work of More in Common) determined by our shared attitudes to things like:

  • Group identity and tribalism;
  • Perceived threat to self or family;
  • Parenting style and authoritarianism;
  • Moral foundations; and
  • Personal agency and responsibility.

And we tend to share other things with those in the same segment as us: we consume the same media, we enjoy the same entertainment and we vote the same way (in general). More sophisticated segmentations would give even higher correlations.

So once the Conservatives know which segment we fall into, they know what messages to target us with and which media they can use to do so. Most importantly, they know whether the message should appear to be coming from them or whether, on the contrary, it should seem as if it is definitely not coming from them.

For example, if you are a Blue Wall voter who treats the Telegraph as a reliable source of news, you will find headlines like this convincing – and believe that this is an independent assessment of what is good for the UK. You will be easily persuaded that “there is no difference between Starmer and Corbyn” (#9), despite all that Labour tries to say.

If, on the other hand you are a Progressive, you would probably pay no attention whatsoever to the above, but when your friends on social media or writing in the Guardian tell you that “there is no difference between Starmer and Sunak” (#11), you may find yourself tempted to agree.

Both Allister Heath and Owen Jones may be entirely sincere in their very different beliefs (#9 and #11, respectively), but whether they are or not is immaterial: they are both propagating the message that we should use our votes tactically against Labour. Owen Jones might be shocked by the suggestion that he is on the same side as Allister Heath – but he is advocating the same actions.

And it is especially powerful when supposedly reliable neutral sources can be co-opted: this is a message from HM Treasury on the day of Sunak’s announcement:

HM Treasury is pushing line #4, and note the use of the Conservative slogan, “Let’s stick to the plan.”

This means that the Conservative machine has the power target us with a message we are likely to find resonant and which appears to come from a source – and via the media – that we trust.

Being taken-in by these messages is not a sign of being weak-willed, stupid or poorly educated: it is a sign of being human. In fact, believing that we are immune from this kind of manipulation is one of the things that makes us most vulnerable.

We should brace ourselves – and not be taken in

Awareness of the risks is critical. Once we are aware that campaigning is well underway already and that we are the targets of some very sophisticated psyops, we can start to be more selective about how we interpret each new piece of ‘information’ we are presented with.

In the UK, there are very few sources that can be safely accepted uncritically on political issues.

If, when you look at the Dirty Dozen assertions above you find yourself thinking, “most of these are obvious nonsense, but actually number [x] seems right to me”, you could ask yourself:

  • What actions does this belief lead me to take? Specifically, in the run up to and at the next elections, what actions does it lead me to take?
  • Which of the two political parties which could win the next election will benefit most from me taking those actions?
  • What is the original source for this belief? Am I sure it is reliable? Have I found a credible independent source that confirms it?

If you find that you believe one of the 12, it is well worth examining that belief very carefully.

Unfortunately, checking every new piece of information properly is too time consuming to be practical. Instead, we can simply make sure that we do not mentally file these claims as facts, but merely as assertions by X. We need to be alert and disciplined if we are not to end up as unwitting agents of the Conservative Party.

Most importantly we should remember that given our first past the post system, if we vote for the party we like most, there is a high risk that our vote will be wasted. But if we vote against the Party we think will do most damage to the UK and to our own families, there is a much better chance our vote will count. There are many sources of information on how to maximise the chances of your vote counting, such as this one.

If you think this is important for people to understand, please share this thread using the buttons below and take a look at The 99% Organisation and join us.

In many seats, you will need to vote tactically to defeat the Conservative.