It’s been well-documented that part of the problem for the Conservatives in the 2017 General Election was that a campaign the party intended to be about Brexit ended up being about austerity – switching from what was a strong Conservative theme to a Labour topic, with commensurate results.
The mis-steps of May’s campaign contributed to that switch, evidently, but there were other factors at play, too. Intensive and effective third party campaigning from a broad alliance of left-wing organisations helped to boost the salience of Jeremy Corbyn’s messaging. Some of that was real-world activity, including unions mounting banners about spending on school railings, but much of it was online – content that went super-viral, forming a “red tide” (in the term of the Tory strategists swamped by it) of organically shared, compelling content.
It had a big influence on various topics. Some were quite surprising, such as pushing fox hunting and an ivory ban up the agenda, but others were on classic political issues, particularly education.
On that front, the ‘School Cuts’ site, set up by an alliance of trade unions, was particularly successful. According to the NUT, who spoke to the Corbynite site Skwawkbox about it at the time, the site had three million views between October 2016 and mid-April 2017, so it was already well-established.
Once the election was called, that went into overdrive – chalking up half a million new views in the first weekend of the campaign alone. The NUT’s General Secretary raked in thousands of retweets for content based on it, and a video drawn from it reportedly chalked up 4.5 million views. Some schools even controversially sent out letters and emails to parents publicising the link.
It certainly seemed to work. Fiona Millar’s Local Schools Network argues that 871,000 voters changed their mind based on school funding:
‘…we can be pretty sure these 871,000 found out about school funding as a result of the School Cuts campaign. And without those votes, it is equally certain that we would now have a Conservative majority government.’
Fair enough, in itself – campaigns are about campaigning, and if the other side do it better than you then you can expect to lose, that’s the name of the game. That’s generally my view, in that there is essentially zero mileage or benefit in complaining about being outdone rather than focusing on upping your own game.
In this instance, however, there is another reason to be somewhat concerned. The UK Statistics Authority has found three reasons to be concerned about the accuracy of the numbers promoted by the School Cuts site – including that its headline claim “risks giving a misleading impression”, and that “the method of calculation may also give a misleading impression of the scale of change for some particular schools.” This is a site visited by millions of people, which is shared thousands upon thousands of times, and which its proponents claim swayed the votes of hundreds of thousands and changed the outcome of the election. It can be expected to be a central online influencer when the next election comes, too.
As you might imagine, the Conservative Party is not impressed. James Cleverly has written to the National Education Union urging them to take down the site and issue a clarification rather than ‘stoke up fear among parents and children, in what I can only conclude to be a politically motivated statement’. Remarkably, the TES reports that the unions responsible have said they ‘stand by’ the figures, despite the UKSA’s verdict.