Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings's "How the Brexit referendum was won" is truly rivetting

This very long article, which appeared on both Dominic Cummings' own blog and in the Spectator Coffee House section yesterday, had me up until 3am this morning, gasping, laughing and going "Coo!" at regular intervals. It's clumsily written and all over the place structurally -  yet it's difficult to imagine a more compelling examination of the forces at work in last June's Brexit triumph (and, no, I haven't yet read Tim Shipman's book, All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class, which has had some excellent reviews - including a thumbs-up from Cummings).  

To be frank, all I knew about Cummings before reading yesterday's article was that he had described Iain Duncan Smith as "incompetent" after working for him briefly when IDS was Conservative Party leader, that he worked for Michael Gove for a long time, both in opposition and in government,  that David Cameron once called him a "career psychopath", and that many people absolutely hate his guts. A quick check on Wikipedia reveals that he is married to the Deputy Editor of the Spectator, Mary Wakfield,  once tried to set up an airline business in Russia, has never joined a political party, and that, following an appearance before the House of Commons Treasury Committee last April, Labour MP Helen Goodman tweeted, "He seems to have no grip on reality at all", and the Conservative committee chairman, Andrew Tyrie, accused him of playing "fast and loose" with the the facts. What had Cummings said to annoy the honourable members? According to the Guardian, 'During the hearing Cummings accused the Bank of England and the Treasury of “scaremongering”, described Treasury civil servants as “charlatans” and accused the Cabinet Office of threatening people who did not support it on the EU." Yes, the truth can often be upsetting.

I won't precis the whole article - it would take hours, and it's well worth reading in its entirety. But here are a few snippets to whet your appetite:
Most of the [Conservative] MPs we dealt with were not highly motivated to win and lacked extreme focus, even those who had been boring everybody about this for decades. They sort of wanted to win but they had other priorities. They were very happy having dinner parties and gossiping. They were very happy coming to meetings with people they thought were important. This wasted enormous amounts of time as we had to create a string of Potemkin committees for people to attend while the core team actually did the campaign, then reinvent them as people became convinced that there were other secret meetings that they were being excluded from. They were very happy to be on the Today Programme. But they didn’t want to win that much. Not enough to work weekends. Not enough to stop having all their usual skiing holidays and winter beach holidays. Not enough to get out on the streets day after day.  Not enough to miss a great shooting weekend. Not enough, most of them, to risk annoying a Prime Minister who they thought would still control their next job after 23 June.
This lack of motivation is connected to another important psychology – the willingness to fail conventionally. Most people in politics are, whether they know it or not, much more comfortable with failing conventionally than risking the social stigma of behaving unconventionally. They did not mind losing so much as being embarrassed, as standing out from the crowd. (The same phenomenon explains why the vast majority of active fund management destroys wealth and nobody learns from this fact repeated every year.)
On the other hand, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Gisella Stewart were heroes:
If Boris, Gove, and Gisela had not supported us and picked up the baseball bat marked ‘Turkey/NHS/£350 million’ with five weeks to go, then 650,000 votes might have been lost. In the awful weekly campaign committee meetings, there were constant complaints and arguments for variations on ‘Go Global’... The Big Three knocked this back despite great pressure.
Three great crises fuelled the Leave vote: the Immigrant crisis, the Euro crisis and the 2008 financial crisis. Remember how all the politicians and commentators laughed at Michael Gove for dissing "experts"?:
All those amazed at why so little attention was paid to ‘the experts’ did not, and still do not, appreciate that these ‘experts’ are seen by most people of all political views as having botched financial regulation, made a load of rubbish predictions, then forced everybody else outside London to pay for the mess while they got richer and dodged responsibility. They are right. This is exactly what happened.
David Cameron made the mistake of treating the referendum campaign as if it was an election:
Normal electoral politics and the structural grip of established political parties fooled insiders about the extent of support for people like Cameron. Cameron won negatively – because he was not Brown or Miliband. There was very little positive feeling for him. They fought the referendum with him and Osborne at the front as if they were fighting Brown or Miliband and asking people to make a choice: this is not how most people saw it.
The politico-media elite (what Cummings refers to as "SW1") made the mistake of imagining that what interested them was what interested voters - that they were setting the agenda. Not so:
...it is wrong to think that public interest in an issue is proportional to the attention paid by politicians and newspapers in SW1. The public only pays attention to a tiny subset of issues that politicians and the media bang on about. It is largely impossible to predict which things will catch fire and which will not, though process stories and ‘scandals’ almost always have zero effect and insiders repeatedly get this wrong. Long before there was any prominent media discussion of ‘the Australian points system’ you could hear it being discussed in focus group after focus group to an extent that was very surprising to me and was very surprising to every single person I discussed it with, including Farage (who adopted the policy because of focus groups, the causal chain was not – Farage talks >> focus groups respond).
Cummings is very much not a fan of Nigel Farage - or of the rest of the UKIP leadership. He reckons the Leave margin of victory would have been larger without Farage in the campaign.

Remain launching ad hominem attacks on Boris Johnson was a strategic blunder - as was their inability to appreciate how angry most voters were about executive pay levels:
One of the most effective TV performances of the campaign was the day Boris hit the theme of corporate looting in a market square. No10 were rightly panicked and in response pushed out Heseltine a few hours later to make a very personal attack on Boris. This made sense tactically but was a strategic error. All such personal attacks helped persuade Boris to up the ante. This was vital with a month to go when the immigration figures came out. Rudd and others argue that Cameron should have attacked Boris and others more. Wrong. They should have played it Zen publicly and had a much better black ops team.
Ultimately, as I think pretty much everyone now realises (even George Osborne, it seems), Leave won because the elites didn't realise just how ragingly, foamingly, screamingly angry most of the country - whatever their political allegiance - was with them.

In future, political campaign supremos might reflect on one startling fact: approximately 98% of Vote Leave's advertising budget was spent on digital marketing - and most of it was spent right at the end of the campaign. But things probably won't change: Cummings points out that "There was not a single report anywhere (and very little curiosity) on how the official Leave campaign spent 98% of its marketing budget. There was a lot of coverage of a few tactical posters." Fascinating.

I found the long section near the end of Cummings' piece - where he discusses the SW1 echo-chamber (and takes the broadcasters - with the exception of Laura Kuenssberg and Allegra Stratton - to task for bias and blindness) particularly interesting. Here's a lengthy chunk:
Why is almost all political analysis and discussion so depressing and fruitless? I think much has to do with the delusions of better educated people. It is easier to spread memes in SW1, N1, and among Guardian readers than in Easington Colliery.
Generally the better educated are more prone to irrational political opinions and political hysteria than the worse educated far from power. Why? In the field of political opinion they are more driven by fashion, a gang mentality, and the desire to pose about moral and political questions all of which exacerbate cognitive biases, encourage groupthink, and reduce accuracy. Those on average incomes are less likely to express political views to send signals; political views are much less important for signalling to one’s immediate in-group when you are on 20k a year. The former tend to see such questions in more general and abstract terms, and are more insulated from immediate worries about money. The latter tend to see such questions in more concrete and specific terms and ask ‘how does this affect me?’. The former live amid the emotional waves that ripple around powerful and tightly linked self-reinforcing networks. These waves rarely permeate the barrier around insiders and touch others.
These factors are deepened by the fact that almost all of those whose job it is to explain politics and campaigns have never been responsible for a complex organisation in general or a campaign in particular, so they are unsuited to understand how politics ripples out from decisions at the centre through dysfunctional bureaucracies to the ground. They almost always exaggerate the extent to which important decisions have been considered carefully by people who know what they are talking about. (The worse educated are actually often helped by their lack of education towards the truth.) They constantly discuss complex systems as though errors can be eradicated instead of asking how quickly errors are adapted to and learned from. This perspective biases them in favour of existing centralised systems that fail continually and against innovations with decentralised systems. They understand little about the challenges faced by small businesses and the lower middle classes.
The more closely involved people are in the media and politics the more they are driven by fashion and the feeling, rarely acknowledged and almost always rationalised, that ‘this is my gang’. Look at all those in SW1 who tweet attacks on Dacre to each other then retweet the praise from their friends, then look at those who attack them. Look at Robert Peston tweeting pictures of the London Eye and Habermas quotes on election night and his opponents ranting about ‘elites’. Both sides are just like football team fans defending their in-group and attacking their out-group enemies. The more they think of themselves as original the more likely they are to be conformist – and conformist within very narrow parameters.  We all fool ourselves but the more educated are particularly overconfident that they are not fooling themselves. They back their gang then fool themselves that they have reached their views by sensible, intelligent, reasoning.
This all rings true - and I say that as someone who happily admits to being a conformist "within very narrow parameters".

Here's another fascinating chunk of analysis that everyone in SW1 and N1 really must read and do their very best to understand:
It doesn’t occur to SW1 and the media that outside London their general outlook is seen as extreme. Have an immigration policy that guarantees free movement rights even for murderers, so we cannot deport them or keep them locked up after they are released? Extreme. Have open doors to the EU and don’t build the infrastructure needed? Extreme. Take violent thugs who kick women down stairs on CCTV, there is no doubt about their identity, and either don’t send them to jail or they’re out in a few months? Extreme. Have a set of policies that stops you dealing with the likes of ‘the guy with the hook’ for over a decade while still giving benefits to his family? Extreme. Ignore warnings about the dangers of financial derivatives, including from the most successful investor in the history of the world, and just keep pocketing the taxes from the banks and spending your time on trivia rather than possible disasters? Extreme. Make us – living on average wages without all your lucky advantages – pay for your bailouts while you keep getting raises and bonuses? Extreme and stupid – and contemptible.
These views are held across educational lines, across party lines, and across class lines. Cameron, Blair, and Evan Davis agree about lots of these things and tell people constantly why they are wrong to think differently but to millions they are the extremists.
 Exactly. Liberal-leftists are weird - we are normal.

One refreshing aspect of Dominic Cummings' reflections is the way he dismisses suggestions that anyone who wins an election or a referendum is a genius, or that they must have known what they were doing all along, or that one big thing explains success of failure. All it needed to swing the result the other way was for UKIP to have wrested control of the Leave campaign (too many voters hate Farage), for Boris and Gove not to have weighed in on the Remain side so wholeheartedly, and for Cameron and Osborne not to have made so many mistakes (Cummings provides a handy list of the main ones).

Cummings is evidently a thoroughly awkward sod - but would an emollient, smiley-faced establishment glad-hander have steered the underprepared, underfunded, chaotic and scarily dysfunctional Leave side to a referendum win? One doubts it. Presumably his knighthood got lost in the post.

Here, once more, is the link to the article. Happy reading!

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