Dodgy Politics

I haven’t posted to this blog much in the past couple of years, because Sam Davies, our independent city councillor here in Queen Edith’s, started publishing so much great stuff on local issues that I could only stand back and admire. Sadly, Sam is now retiring her blog, so I might fire up the computer again every now and then for an observation.

One reason is that I’m a bit annoyed with some of our local political parties’ campaigning, especially the way they’re preying on less informed voters. For the past few months I’ve been irritated by the Liberal Democrats, but this last weekend, the Conservatives have comfortably Trumped them in the misdirection stakes. Don’t be fooled.

First, the Lib Dems.

Now, we all know about the Lib Dems’ reputation for bad presentation of data. There are entire social media accounts dedicated to their hilariously dodgy bar charts. However, in the long lead-up to the next General Election, the main thrust of their campaign in this area is already based on data that they absolutely KNOW to be misleading: namely, that in the last General election, the Conservatives had the biggest vote in the South Cambridgeshire constituency, and the Lib Dems came second, so if you want to see a change, you need to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

The first part is true. That is what happened. What they’re not pointing out is that this is irrelevant. The old South Cambridgeshire constituency no longer exists. We’ll have a completely new one at the next General Election. I estimate that over a third of voters will have been in a different constituency last time, including the whole of Cherry Hinton. The Lib Dems know this better than anyone. So to tell us that we should make a decision based on the results in a different constituency, four years ago, with different candidates, seems deliberately misleading to me.

The independent Electoral Calculus website currently predicts the three main parties finishing within 5% of each other (Lib Dems 33.6%, Conservatives 28.9%, Labour 27.1%). That makes the new South Cambridgeshire that rarest of things, a three-way marginal, which any of those parties can win. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But as for the Conservatives…

This one actually made me quite angry, and I’ll explain why. These days, political parties are trying to get more and more data about us, while at the same time there’s an increased public desire for privacy. In the parties’ ideal world, we’d just tell them all about ourselves freely, but of course, we’re not going to do that. So what some of them are doing is trying to trick us out of this information.

Over the weekend, our household received a hand-delivered letter, containing a form with a printed name and address on it, with a reply-paid envelope. Together they looked quite formal. The form was headed “QUEEN EDITH’S NHS SURVEY”.

Without reading it carefully, anyone could have been forgiven for thinking it was from the NHS. It wasn’t, of course.

It was from the local Conservatives.

Now, these ‘surveys’ are some of the political parties’ favourite ways of getting us to give up information about ourselves. Sometimes they haven’t even the slightest interest in what we answer to the questions. What they want is our email address or phone numbers to add to their databases. Despite the ‘surveys’ giving us a seemingly welcome chance to tell politicians what we think about the congestion charge, or whatever, the gold is in the contact details section we’re asked to fill in, just above the tiny print saying we’re giving them permission to use this information for just about whatever they want to.

To be fair, if they’re completely clear about who they are and what they’re doing, well, I suppose it’s our lookout if we give them this information.

But back to our “NHS SURVEY” (below). Does this look like it’s from the Conservative Party? Certainly not at first glance.

There’s a bit of blurb saying the survey is from the “South Cambs parliamentary candidate”, which will sound alarm bells to many people, although not all. And note there’s no mention at this point of any political party. There is some small print at the bottom, making it legal; and by the time you get to the second page, a “Conservatives” logo does appear, although we might well skim over that as we go through the form that we’d been ordered to complete (“Fill in your details now”!)

And those questions! “Why did you use the hospital?” One of the options we’re given is “Sexual health”. That’ll be an ice-breaker when they come around canvassing. “Hello, I’m your Conservative candidiate, I see you’ve been to the sexual health clinic at Addenbrooke’s, are your problems all sorted now?”

Who’s going to be reading these forms when they come in at the local Conservative party office? How safe is their data?

Some of the questions are just there for the ride. I’m told these are called ‘push polls’, where the questions are used to get a message over. They don’t care what we answer – they just want us to read the question, which contains some sort of claim stated as fact.

An example in this case is question 10: “The government is investing an extra £45.6 billion over the next three years in the NHS. What are your top two local priorities for the new money?”

Did you get the message there?

And finally, the reply-paid envelope. Any clues there where this mailing came from? Of course not. The return address was just “SCCA” in Hardwick. That’s the South Cambs Conservative Association, but I doubt even 1% of the recipients would know that.

I posted the form on Twitter to see what other people thought. I didn’t expect it to go ‘viral’, but it got picked up by some well-followed NHS campaigners and even the likes of political comms guru Alastair Campbell. At the time of writing, the form had been physically seen by three-quarters of a million people. I’m not sure how many of them will have heard of ‘Queen Edith’s’ before!

There’s another reason why I object to the sort of subterfuge used in this mailing. Not that long ago, I received a real survey from the NHS. I assume that the survey was deemed important enough to spend public funds on, and I hope it proved a worthwhile exercise. However, my immediate reaction to it at the time was: “Is this real?” and I had to do some research to establish that it was. I’d bet many people just didn’t take a chance and threw it away.

We shouldn’t be in a situation where we suspect everything of being some sort of scam, but we have to be. There are too many bad actors out there nowadays. To have respectable political parties contributing to this air of suspicion is so disappointing.

Will public reaction make any of the parties think again about their tactics in the upcoming election? I don’t suppose so. But any of us who know someone who might be taken in by this stuff should draw their attention to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the additions to the local Conservative party’s database from this survey will contain a disproportionately high number of vulnerable people.

10 Replies to “Dodgy Politics”

  1. The one that always winds me up is the official looking party representatives outside the polling stations who demand your name as soon as you arrive. For years I assumed this was part of the voting process, and then one day I realised they were just collecting data on who turns out to vote and who doesn’t. Nowadays I only ever vote in disguise and I refuse to tell them who I am if they ask. Similarly, if a canvasser calls at the door I always say I’m someone who never votes. Combining these two tactics means I rarely get bothered at home as they’ve got me down as someone who says they don’t vote and who never turns up at the polls 🙂

    1. Don’t get me going on that one, David. Nobody representing a party should be allowed anywhere near a polling station, never mind have exclusive access to just outside. When I’ve raised this in the past, party representatives have tried to defend it as apparently being for our benefit as voters, so they don’t annoy us later in the day by calling and reminding us to vote. Yeah, right.

        1. It is literally not the only reason it’s done. The main reason is simply that it’s an unmissable chance to present a party rosette in front of every incoming voter. When I was part of Sam Davies’ non-party election campaign, she absolutely saw the benefit in being there with big “Sam Davies” rosettes, welcoming every voter …so we organised a team, pointless clipboards in hand, despite not needing the information about who’d voted. I’m convinced that our presence was a very effective encouragement and reminder to arriving voters about Sam’s presence on the ballot paper. (It didn’t change my mind about the whole thing being something that should be stopped though.)

    2. To be fair they are not “collecting data on who turns out to vote and who doesn’t” as all political parties have access to this information after the event anyway (through copies of the “marked registers” from the polling station). But they are collecting real-time data on who has voted so they don’t the go and knock on their door reminding them to vote.

      1. Well I didn’t realise that. No need for the disguises in future then! Perhaps then, the reason they don’t call at my house to remind me to vote is because I generally tell them all that I hate their party and if I vote at all then it will be for the other side. So they just have me down as a curmudgeonly old so and so.

  2. Sterling work, Chris – and thank you very much. Sam has been wonderful, but I know you have always been a part of the scene and it is reassuring to known that you will be carrying on.

    What gets me about the Lib Dems is their persistent claim that they care about the Green Belt and the natural environment – they who steamrollered the last Local Plan and have plans for 45,000 more houses in our increasingly crowded and water-starved city. It’s so bare-faced.

  3. I’m so glad you wrote about this very dodgy stuff from both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. I wrote to the Lib Dems about the earlier stuff I got from them but have had no reply. I shall also be writing to the Conservatives about the recent “NHS” survey – lets see if they reply.

  4. Quite right, Chris. I wish politicians would realise that they undermine not just their own case but democracy itself with their easy readiness to publish what is clearly inaccurate and misleading information.

    I had not fully appreciated the motives behind the ‘NHS’ survey but did reply that it was Tory propaganda masquerading as a (very tendentious) ‘survey’. Please can we have open and honest argument in the long run up to the next election!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *