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Ashcroft and nostalgia computing

March 3, 2010

Ashcroft the non-dom close to brewing into a proper, old-fashioned Tory scandal:

Revenue investigators were last night facing demands to launch an inquiry into the tax status of Lord Ashcroft, the billionaire businessman bankrolling the Consevative party, amid new questions about how he was allowed to break a promise to permanently base himself in the UK to secure a seat in the House of Lords.

As anger grew over Ashcroft’s admission that he has secretly remained a non-dom for the nine years he has sat in parliament, there were separate calls for inquiries into his nomination for a peerage in 2000 and his tax affairs.

In a knowing 2010 twist on a mid-90s classic, the foreign businessman lavishing the cash about is actually English and resident here. It’s not nostalgia politics, it’s self-aware, ironic nostalgia politics.

Hopefully Ashcroft can be persuaded onto one of those I LUV 1994 programmes to talk about what japes they all used to have with the citrus fruit and the brown envelopes and whatnot.

The benefactors of Ashcroft’s tax-free largesse also have a whiff of something over-familiar. Wired magazine this month has a feature on “Merlin”, the computerised vote-targeting system, an update of Labour’s 1997 system, “Excalibur”. The Guardian blog has some details:

Merlin allows the party to combine information about a local area gathered from canvass sheets with Mosaic – a subtle classification of voter groups developed by the research firm Experian, which gives a detailed breakdown of 65 consumer “tribes” such as “cafe bar professionals” and “high spending families”. Crabtree writes: “Those socio-demographic categories let candidates see who lives in their patch simply by typing in a postcode”.

This sort of detailed voter information is the life-blood of an election campaign. But there’s nothing new about it.

For well over a century, mass, democratic politics has made use of this sort knowledge. Local activists have always had to know what sort of person they would find behind any particular door. Success in an election campaign would depend on knowing how to target messages. Years of practical, on-the-ground experience have built up inside the major political parties.

The Tories’ system effectively digitises that knowledge base, like copying vinyl records onto CDs. The same underlying information is there, just in a different format. So it’s not clear Merlin does anything more sophisticated than what a well-informed local party branch could do.

And a computer system, however sophisticated, cannot make the imaginative leaps that people can. Politics is a creative art. Initiative and imagination matter.

Except, of course, allowing local activists’ the initiative is something Cameron’s team have become rather wary of.

An expensive new system like Merlin would be a good way to challenge local control. And it might compensate for withered local organisations. In a tight election, that can matter. But it’s no magic wand.

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One comment

  1. Interesting to consider the extent to which this process of ‘dividualisation’ might become one that is increasingly self-governed, especially as these demographic categorisations become more visibly public. Depressingly, I can imagine people from across the party lines eager to ensure they are categorised in a way that best reflects their narcissistic social ambitions…



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