The 1996 election campaign that brought Bill Clinton to the White House fundamentally changed the way campaigns are run in more ways than one. Clinton’s success owed much to the genius of James Carville, the lead strategist behind his successful election campaign and creator of “the war room” This was a political command centre where strategists and their media officers worked together to counter-attack opponents with unprecedented speed.
Their lightning-fast responses were made possible thanks to a database that collected all the available information about opponents so that it could be used against them. Old speeches were trawled for past proclamations and long-forgotten incidents raked up to cause fresh embarrassment. All this information could be sent out to journalists at the drop of a hat, as soon as the opportune moment presented itself.
Carville’s war room revolutionised the way election campaigns are conducted in a model exported to Canada, the UK and beyond. Much of its success was its adaptability for running a campaign in the 24-hour news age. Campaigns could respond almost instantly to just about anything with little advance notice when the war room’s database was well organised.
The Conservative Party recently hired Lynton Crosby, an Australian strategist who assisted London mayor Boris Johnson’s re-election campaign. He has been credited with “sharpening up” the party’s nascent campaign ahead of the expected 2015 general election and already has his war room up and running. But his war room reveals something new about their uses and limits.
It is sometimes said the best offence is a good defence. In an election campaign, the less troublesome information there is in the hands of your opponents' war machines, the less they will be able to launch attacks on you. If the Tories could restrict the available information about themselves to opponents, then they could enjoy a strategic advantage when it comes to disseminating rapid press releases countering claims on the campaign trail.
And that’s exactly what the Conservatives did. Or at least thought they did. Despite earlier promises that government should be made more transparent so politicians could be held to account, the Tories have tried – literally – to erase their recent online history. In an act of brazen Machiavellian chutzpah mixed with untold naivety, the party has tried to erase records of speeches and press releases published between 2000 and its coming to power in May 2010.
This was not just about removing content from the Conservative Party website, but also about removing all such records from the internet. The Tories launched a bot blocker that barred pages for public consumption – one aim appears to be to make it nearly impossible to conduct online searches for embarrassing pre-coalition speeches. Or at least that’s what they thought they did.
However, there was a significant flaw in the plan. The personnel in Crosby’s war room clearly don’t understand the internet. Removing online content post-publication can be easier said than done, especially where the content is by a party in government.
“Deletegate” has been made all the more ridiculous by the relative ease with which the missing content has been retrieved. It’s readily clear why Crosby’s war room thought it would be a good idea to try to brush some past pronouncements under the carpet once you see what was removed.
For example, among the pre-2010 proclamations made by PM David Cameron that were removed from the Conservative Party website were promises to offer no major structural change to the NHS, a commitment to increasing state spending, a pledge to permit voters to remove individual MPs halfway through a parliament and support for the transparency in politics that the internet brings and we should welcome.
The error of Deletegate is in thinking the internet is like paper and not fluid. Newspapers or books can be seized and burned. They can, with enough effort, be permanently deleted. The internet is more like a stream that can be managed and shaped, but where deletion might be impossible to achieve.
Labour has now been exposed “managing” the content of its website to delete old content but it doesn’t appear to have brazenly attempted to wipe the internet clean of the content, perhaps realising that this would be a near impossible task.
The war room is a modern approach to running an election campaign designed for our media age. The aim of winning elections may remain the same, but the means by which elections are contested has been fundamentally transformed. Thanks to Crosby, so too has the adage of the best offence is a good defence. Deletegate indicates that the information war may be best won through information management rather than delete bots. Sometimes what appears to be a good defence is a better offence for opponents. I’m sure Carville would agree.