I’m afraid I have a lot to answer for, propaganda-wise.
Twenty-five years ago, I was a young researcher working for John Major’s Conservative Party. I was seconded to the Tory ad agency at that time, Saatchi & Saatchi, as campaign co-ordinator for the forthcoming general election campaign (a job that I was put up for by David Cameron — yes, we go back a long way).
I worked with the agency’s brilliant creative teams, led by Jeremy Sinclair (with the close involvement of both Saatchi brothers), and helped provide some of the political content for their work.
I was in the room when the very first version of the now-famous ‘Labour’s Tax Bombshell’ poster was presented. It looked pretty much like the image that went up on billboards around the country on January 6th 1992 — with one important exception. In the centre of the World War II-era ‘bombshell’ that provided the central image was a single word: ‘TAX.’
But by the final version, the bombshell carried the immortal line: “YOU’D PAY £1000 MORE TAX A YEAR UNDER LABOUR.” What prompted the change? It was actually a question from me in that meeting. “Wouldn’t it be more powerful if we put a figure on it?”, I asked.
Well yes it would — and it was. Ever since then we’ve seen an explosion — sorry — of bombshell-type claims across our political landscape, with, it seems to me, steadily diminishing returns.
The latest incarnation was lobbed into the EU referendum debate by the Remain campaign. It is claimed that every household in Britain will be exactly £4,300 worse off if we leave the EU.
Of course this is not literally true, any more than it was literally true that every British household would be precisely one thousand pounds worse off if Neil Kinnock had won in 1992. And today, those who make the ‘EU bombshell’ claim know it’s not true. They’re simply using a number to try and make a vague point more specific — and therefore, they hope, more memorable and effective.
“So what?”, you might ask. “That’s just politics. We’re used to it. And anyway, who are you to judge, Steve Hilton? You used to help churn out this crap.”
Fair enough. Guilty as charged. But now I’m trying to make amends. You see, I think we’ve got a real problem in the UK — in fact in pretty much every democracy — with the nature of the political debate and its impact on people’s participation.
The professionalisation of politics — yes, the professionalisation of which I was part — has left too many people feeling as if politics is a game played by an insular ruling elite of politicians, advisors, pollsters, donors, journalists and assorted hangers-on. This is a ‘game’ from which most people are excluded, even though it is their lives that are affected most deeply by it. Meanwhile, the players of the game are often insulated from the real consequences of their actions.
Right now you see this played out in the EU referendum campaigns, with their outlandish claims of dire outcomes, whether it’s invoking world war if we leave, or Hitler if we stay. Both campaigns, frankly, are treating people like simpletons.
Now, I’m sure that the politicians know this, and aren’t exactly thrilled about it. But they do it anyway. Why? Because they think the public — yes that would be you — aren’t interested in shades of grey, nuance or complexity. Everything has to be simple, black and white, an instant verdict.
That might work for some decisions, like which film to see or what to have for dinner. But not for the biggest things — like, to pick a random example, the next fifty years of our future as a country.
The honest truth is that the decision before us in this referendum is really complex. It’s hard. It’s not black and white. You have to weigh up many different things. Obviously, in the end, it comes down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — and I believe strongly that each one of us has a responsibility to make up our minds and cast our vote one way or the other. But on the way to that clear-cut answer are many competing claims of real validity.
Both sides of this debate have good points to make. It’s not reasonable for either side to assert that their version of the future is certain to happen. Whether Britain votes to stay or leave, there will be risks — and this is true especially on the economic front. It is ridiculous, and an insult to everyone’s intelligence, for either side to pretend that their plan guarantees safety and opportunity, while the other side’s plan promises nothing but costs and risks.
The real question for you, as a voter, is to evaluate the different risks and opportunities, and decide which combination makes most sense to you.
It’s to help citizens make decisions like this, and to participate more fully in our democracy, that I started Crowdpac, a new platform for political engagement. Launched in the US a couple of years ago and more recently in the UK, we’re working to end the stranglehold of big money donors and vested interests on the political system. Our political crowdfunding tools give people the power to fund the change they want to see, and to run for office without relying on the same old establishment party machines.
We’re also providing voters with the best objective data on politicians and issues, so they can be better informed when they vote. That’s why we’ve created an objective, data-driven decision-making guide for the EU referendum. Our new EU #InOrOut voter information test on Crowdpac.co.uk aims to help everyone go through a process of careful, informed and reflective decision-making. We’ve reviewed the research and consulted with experts on all sides to identify which arguments weigh most heavily for Remain or Leave.
The test invites you to answer twenty-four questions on a range of topics. As well as questions on the economy, you can decide where you stand on issues as diverse as democracy, identity, and social issues like migration. You can also mark some issues as very important to you, and decide that others are not so important. The #InOrOut test then calculates your personalised results. It tells you whether your answers suggest you should vote In or Out, and how strong and consistent your position is (50–55% would mean it’s probably still a toss-up for you, whereas 75–100% means it’s much clearer which way you lean).
The test also identifies which issues are most important to you and shows you which way you lean on each of them. For instance, you might find you’re IN on identity and society, but OUT on democracy and the economy. That’s life. This is a complicated decision.
My colleague Paul Hilder, who runs Crowdpac in the UK, has completely different political views to me — his background is more on the left of politics, with movements like 38 Degrees, Avaaz and Labour.
But we both think that politics is broken and needs fundamental change, and we have big plans for how Crowdpac can contribute to building a better democracy in years to come.
But right now, we want to make sure as many people as possible cast an informed vote on June 23rd. That’s why our #InOrOut test ends by asking you to make a plan to vote, a step which behavioural scientists have shown to be a great help in boosting turnout.
I’m certain that many of you reading this will take the test and think: “Huh, tell me something I don’t know. I already knew I was In. (or Out).” But we haven’t designed this for the experts, or the insiders, or the people who are already certain of their position.
We’ve designed it first and foremost for the upwards of 40%, according to the polls, who haven’t yet made a final decision — and are not being helped by the current debate. And here’s another thing. Even if you think you are sure of your position, take the test anyway. At the very least it might help clarify your arguments and priorities; help you understand why you feel the way you do.
But it might actually change your mind. Because we’ve found, in designing and testing this product, that when people put their assumptions and instincts to a rational, objective, data-driven test — the results are sometimes surprising…