As a software company powering both Anglo political campaigns and those on the European continent, my company is keenly aware of the differences in the way campaigning is done in those areas. Given that the two traditions share a parliament in Brussels and all the infrastructure of a federalizing Europe, it’s in some ways surprising that Anglo countries still look more to Boston than to Berlin for direction on political campaigning.
At the end of the day, we often find the similarities remain greater than any differences. Defining campaign characteristics like leader’s debates, social media strategy, and party slogans are of course common to both. But for those looking at working campaigns on either end of this spectrum, there are lessons in two main areas to take on board.
Firstly, face-to-face contact or canvassing of voters remains one of the biggest differences we see through our work. Among the political parties in Brussels that have an overview of both Anglo and Continental campaigning there is a belief that canvassing is very much an Anglo tradition. The understanding is that Continental politicians are happy to speak to the electorate as a body (or segmented bodies) rather than as individuals, not because they do not see voters as individuals, but because the tradition there is less about individualism than the Anglo view.
By contrast, there is a desire, on the part of Anglo politicians and grassroots operatives to sling themselves up and down streets, not only at election time but also a primary method of constituent contact during an incumbency.
Voter Data and Privacy
Allied to the canvassing issue are the very different attitudes to voter data and data privacy from the UK to the Continent. For legal, or more likely cultural reasons, the collecting of voter data is largely frowned upon on the Continent. In the UK and Ireland, despite data privacy being a huge issue in business and society, voter data is still maintained at a variety of levels of the political establishment.
The US style campaigning method of holding detailed voter data and using that data to influence and turn out a voter, is something that Anglo politicians aspire to, but Continental politicians largely do not. Data processing agreements and data privacy documentation are all standard requirements before any business can be done with Continental politicians.
Despite tech adoption statistics being similar across the EU in terms of percentage of populations that are online, the adoption of political technology is quite different from the UK to the Continent. Products like NationBuilder, NGP VAN, and our company (Ecanvasser) have been in use in the UK and Ireland for many years now, where they do not have widespread adoption on the Continent. The reason for this is probably a mixture of Continental squeamishness around data privacy and the relative ease with which US technologies (as political tech usually is) can sell into English speaking markets.
The larger UK parties have all tried to develop their own solutions to voter database management and communication but nothing has, as yet, become a recognizable brand outside of those parties themselves. What is clear is that both Anglo and Continental politicians do want to engage with technology but they want it to do different things, or more to the point, they want it to mirror what they already do.
Of course, points of difference are only worth noting if something can be learned from them and frankly there has been very little cross-cultural learnings in both traditions up until now. Distinct traditions have always been held up as a positive thing; after all no French politician would want to be seen to be learning too much from the UK and vice versa.
However, the areas mentioned around face-to-face contact, data privacy and tech adoption, are all due to be impacted hugely by the arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018. This will require data on any European citizen held by an organization to have a much higher level of data protection than ever before. It will mean, essentially, that all information will have to be explicitly opt-in, and that this data will need to be visible to, and editable by the individual at all times. This means that data held on voters will likely need to be cloud-based; a data protection officer will need to be employed by most political organizations; and grassroots face-to-face contact is going to be required by all political parties.
GDPR will take the main points of difference between Anglo and Continental political practice and make them moot. It will force Continental political parties to go face-to-face with individual voters and it will force Anglo parties to take seriously their commitments to voters’ data privacy. In the process, it will involve a rush towards tech adoption among parties, particularly political technology. In the age of Brexit it seems ironic that a piece of EU legislation will make campaigning more similar among the different traditions.
Brendan Tobin is Head of Growth at Ecanvasser.