Peter Oborne

The mean machine

Peter Oborne reveals that the Tories have a secret weapon — the Voter Vault — which has identified the 900,000 swing voters the party needs to capture at the next election

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Peter Oborne reveals that the Tories have a secret weapon — the Voter Vault — which has identified the 900,000 swing voters the party needs to capture at the next election

According to all objective criteria the Conservative party leadership ought to be very low in the water. The assassination of Iain Duncan Smith almost exactly 12 months ago has brought about numberless benefits: a new mood among fundraisers; the restoration of discipline and purpose in the parliamentary party; much higher morale on the ground. But it has had no effect on the polls. The Conservatives remain exactly where they were before, becalmed in the low thirties, seemingly heading for a third consecutive landslide defeat.

But a mood of optimism endures. Michael Howard, when he predicts victory, somehow conveys conviction. The Tory chairman Maurice Saatchi confidently forecasts a hung parliament. There is, of course, an element of perfunctory incantation in both cases — it is a ritual of democratic politics that even doomed leaders radiate optimism — but also an underlying confidence.

There can be no question that both men share a genuine belief that the Conservative party has been granted a special insight into the mystery of how to win next year’s general election. At first sight this belief appears irrational, bordering on the demented and a cause for concern. But Howard and Saatchi are both intelligent men. No understanding of current politics is complete which does not take into account the reasoning that lies behind their genuinely hopeful public demeanour.

Part of the solution is a machine that squats in Conservative Central Office in Victoria Street, the object of much homage, wonder and devotion. No ancient Roman shrine ever attracted so much reverence. It would be wrong to make too much of its merely mechanical qualities, prodigious though they are said to be. The true importance of this machine, called Voter Vault, is its status as the technological embodiment of the insights that guided the Republicans to victory in this month’s presidential election.

Karl Rove, supreme architect of George W. Bush’s triumph and the universally acknowledged high priest of modern campaign management, has long understood that all voters are not equal in a modern democracy; indeed the vast majority do not matter at all. In 2004 Voter Vault was used by Karl Rove and his acolytes to sift out the tiny minority who determined the result. Some 120 million people went to the polls in the United States two weeks ago, but as far as Rove was concerned only a handful of voters in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and a few others mattered. And long before election day came Voter Vault knew every relevant piece of information about these highly desirable people: their type of car, their social class, the likely size of their house and their likely religious and sexual preferences.

This information enabled analysts to sift out those who were likely to vote Republican, vote Democrat or — the only category to which Rove paid the slightest attention — were torn between the two. Voter Vault made possible interesting observations about the American people; for instance, that Volvo drivers are making a statement about their international outlook and therefore much less likely to vote Republican. In the final weeks of the campaign the Voter Vault machinery enabled campaign managers to guide their voters to the polls with the precision of cruise missiles turning a street corner in central Baghdad. Voter Vault told them whom to ring and, better still, which questions to ask and what information to convey. In this sense the American presidential election of 2004 was the first designer election in history, with policies tailored not for the country at large, but for the individual voter.

Voter Vault has now been acquired at huge cost by the Conservatives, and Tory strategists claim that they have honed this extraordinary piece of kit to a far higher level of ingenuity and precision than anything that has ever been seen in the past. Labour has a version of Voter Vault called Mosaic — but the Conservatives insist their machine is in a different class. ‘We have a much more scientific weapon than anything we have seen before,’ insists co-chairman Maurice Saatchi. ‘We like to think that we are well ahead of the other parties.’ Saatchi says that ‘millions of pounds’ will have been spent on it by the time of the general election.

In America Voter Vault’s powerful and probing intelligence focused on the few million people who determined the result. In Britain it has an even narrower focus. Its all-seeing eye does not engage with retired colonels in Tunbridge Wells. Safe Tory voters in one of the 165 constituencies which remained Tory in the 2001 holocaust are simply taken for granted. Likewise Voter Vault excludes from consideration unemployed shipworkers in Glasgow, since there are few Glasgow marginals which might go Conservative in 2005.

In fact Voter Vault is dedicated to just 900,000 people, or a remarkably small 2 per cent of Britain’s 45 million adult population. Tory strategists have identified these people as the only ones who even faintly matter in the 2005 general election. To qualify for membership of this privileged category voters must possess three attributes. First, they must live in one of the 167 target marginal seats, most of them in the central or West Midlands, which the Conservatives must secure if they are to claim victory. Second, they did not vote Conservative last time. Third, they must be ready to toy with the idea of doing so in 2005. Central Office strategists assert that Voter Vault’s expertise — experts call it ‘geo-demographic segmentation’ — enables them to identify every last one of these people.

The moment one of these precious creatures has been unearthed by Voter Vault, he or she can be targeted with a pitiless accuracy. Election literature, specially focused on voters’ personal concerns, starts to arrive through the letterbox. Electronic mail — a big feature of the recent American elections — is remorselessly dispatched. Canvassers, when they call at the door, will show a special anxiety and concern. In due course this target voter will be called — in some cases repeatedly — from the Conservative phone banks now being set up all around Britain. The largest of these is at the recently opened campaign centre of Coleshill near Birmingham. Coleshill has been deliberately chosen because it is at the heart of next year’s election battleground. Some 20 full-time staff are being hired there, chosen for their easy telephone manner and excellent local knowledge. Armed with Voter Vault’s insights, these staff will show an unnerving insight into the needs and preoccupations of the voters they speak to.

None of this comes about by chance: about 500,000 of Voter Vault’s chosen few are within easy reach of Coleshill. The outcome of the British general election will be determined in the West Midlands, just as Ohio held the key to the United States result two weeks ago. All Conservative policy-making is aimed directly at the handful of swing voters in these crucial target seats. Michael Howard’s speech at Tory conference six weeks ago was a manifestation of this. His five key points — law and order, health, education, tax and immigration — were the five points which, intensive research showed, most closely concerned the Voter Vault 900,000. Last week’s speech by Mr Howard on childcare was made in response to preoccupations highlighted by this allegedly formidable software. One Conservative strategist says that Voter Vault will enable the party ‘to fight a series of local elections, not one big national campaign’.

There is something very disturbing and, beyond doubt, anti-democratic about this relentless focus on such a remarkably small slice of the British electorate. It produc es all kinds of malign and distorting effects. The lavish attention on just a few means the effective disfranchisement of the majority, while the obsessive concentration on just 2 per cent of the electorate explains why the policies of the two main parties are coming to resemble each other so closely. Conservative strategists accept some of these criticisms, but say they have no alternative. Their problem is the catastrophic unfairness of the electoral system, a phenomenon outlined in a paper written for Representation, the journal of the Electoral Reform Society, by the political scientist David Butler two weeks ago. The inequality is jaw-dropping. If Tory and Labour were to emerge neck and neck in the number of votes at next year’s general election, Tony Blair would still command an easy majority. This grotesque inequality means that the Conservatives need a 12 per cent swing to obtain even a paper majority at the general election, an impossible task. So there is an urgent need to do everything possible to ameliorate this palpable unfairness.

There are some reasons for believing that this might happen anyway. The British political landscape remained completely unchanged between the 1997 and 2001 general elections. But something has most certainly happened since, though nobody is at all sure what. Lord Saatchi, who has pondered this issue as much as most, is fond of comparing the electorate to a woman who has been abused and betrayed by the man to whom she gave her heart — New Labour. Irritatingly for the alternative suitor, the Tory party, this experience has left her generally prone to reject the entreaties of men in general. There is something to be said for this, beyond the questionable sexist metaphor. It helps to convey the overwhelming conundrum of our contemporary political predicament: widespread disillusion with New Labour but no corresponding enthusiasm for the Conservative party.

But this disillusion with Labour brings benign electoral consequences for the Conservatives, even if not a single voter switches to Michael Howard. This is thanks to a factor political experts now inelegantly term ‘tactical unwind’. In both 1997 and 2001 a significant percentage of the electorate felt such a strong hatred for the Conservative party that it was prepared to vote for the most likely local alternative party whether it actually supported it or not. This anti-Conservative block vote accounts for the way John Major in 1997 and William Hague in 2001 suffered total routs rather than merely honourable defeats. The Tory party may not have achieved much since 2001, but it is probably safe to say that this venomous loathing has gone. Indeed, a growing proportion of the population is now beginning to feel the same revulsion for Tony Blair as it once did for the Tories.

Important consequences flow from this new state of affairs, and they were outlined in a useful piece of research carried out by John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. Curtice calculates that the Conservatives can make prodigious gains of up to 70 seats at the general election even if they don’t gain a single vote, doubtless more still if Voter Vault is anything like as formidable as Tory strategists think it is. Curtice calculates that an end to tactical voting, along with a relatively modest 8.5 per cent national swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, would bring about a hung parliament. So there is some sound sense behind the apparently deluded optimism of Michael Howard and Maurice Saatchi. Next spring’s general election promises to be the most unpredictable for years.