Ronald Reagan once said: ?Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.? If this is the case, then we are fast entering the tarting season.
But the forthcoming election will be more than just a photo opportunity based on sex appeal. It will be a fierce battle, where quick and accurate information exchanges will be vital if the political message is to be brought home to the voters. Indeed, this election, although driven by MPs and research departments, will be built on information technology.
Good press is vital to the successful cultivation of a party?s image and, in this respect, timing is crucial. Each party will aim to undermine public trust in its opponents and, with polling day approaching, how and when they assemble and distribute information becomes key.
It is widely assumed that the next Government will be formed by either the Conservative or Labour Party. Both have invested heavily in IT over the last year and are already making extensive use of text-retrieval systems, desktop publishing, email and the Web.
As is so often the case in the IT industry, both Labour and the Conservatives are taking their lead from the US. During the last presidential election, Democrats and Republicans employed vast IT systems, including the same Excalibur EFS system which both the Conservatives and Labour have now installed. It will prove a powerful tool in the heated exchange of facts and figures that the election is certain to bring.
So has the introduction of this new technology prepared a level playing field on which the two main protagonists can do battle head-on? And in the media showdown, how will the two parties use this IT to put across their message?
Since taking over from John Smith as leader, Tony Blair has redefined the Labour Party. New Labour is Blair?s baby, and he has supervised its growth both within its ranks and in the media spotlight with the aim of making the Party electable.
But the 1997 election will be won on the quality of information and ideas, rather than image. Safeguarding those ideas, largely by refuting counter-claims from opposition parties, is central to any hope of electoral success. And it is out of this need for fast, accurate information, that the Party?s Rebuttal Unit was born.
The Rebuttal Unit, now codenamed ?the Attack Unit?, is based in Millbank Tower, next to the Tate Gallery in London. It is the engine of Labour?s election vehicle and represents an investment of approximately #1m. The unit is dominated by Excalibur, the client-server architecture, text-indexing-and-retrieval system. ?It brings additional speed, accuracy and flexibility to answering questions raised by the Tories,? says Adrian McMenamin, head of the Rebuttal Unit. ?We?re not going to let the Tories get away with what they did in 1992.?
Although the system does not actually answer questions, it provides shadow cabinet MPs with plenty of ammunition. ?In November, the Tories listed what was claimed to be Labour?s spending proposals, and we were able to knock it down in detail within five hours,? adds McMenamin.
Excalibur uses scanned-in documents on both the Tories and Liberal Democrats. These include press releases, press cuttings, television interview transcripts, Press Association clippings and copies of Hansard. Researchers can then compile information on all political areas, including quotes and claims from opposition MPs.
Adaptive Pattern Recognition Processing (APRP) allows researchers to locate information, even if they are uncertain about what they?re looking for. This is because documents are automatically indexed, doing away with the need for user-defined keywords or indexes.
While McMenamin is prepared to pay homage to the system, which he claims uses ?a kind of fuzzy logic?, he is also acutely aware that it is just a piece of machinery. ?The thing that drives it is politics and staff. It?s just a sophisticated system, and is only as good as the people operating it and the political ideas behind it.?
Its most recent coup involved Chancellor Ken Clarke. In a poster campaign, Labour warned that the Tories were targeting VAT on food. Clarke claimed this was an outright lie. Labour?s immediate response was to issue a copy of a letter from Clarke, in which he said: ?I can only reaffirm that I have never promised not to extend the scope of VAT...? It?s an example of how both sides will use the system to play party-political tennis.
The Rebuttal Unit has become known as the Attack Unit because it collates information on Tory discrepancies, which can be fed to the press. An example of this strategy was when David Willetts, MP, resigned. The unit had been collecting information on him as a likely candidate for resignation so, when the time came, the unit was ready to attack.
But has Labour lost its competitive edge now the Conservatives also have Excalibur?
McMenamin thinks not, and reiterates that it?s a matter of how the information is used and what it consists of, as opposed to the technology itself. As he stresses: ?We reckon they?ve spent about #10m, and frankly, their use of the technology so far has been a little pathetic.?
Apart from Excalibur, Labour?s Rebuttal Unit is well-equipped with all sorts of IT and communications devices. The Party even has its own Web site giving details on Labour MPs, how to contact them, links to regional offices and how to join the New Labour crusade.
In addition, the Millbank Tower base has a Novell Network. This links a mixture of 486s and Pentiums, running Lotus Notes and Microsoft Access, and PowerPCs for document production.
The network uses Internet email to send documents to researchers and Party activists. To round this off, there is a theatre in the basement at Millbank which was purpose-built for hosting press conference. It uses fibre-optic cables for video and audio transmission. It seems the Labour Party has, at last, joined the modern world.
The Conservative approach
With Labour?s Rebuttal Unit attempting to undermine public trust in the Government by raking up Tory inconsistencies, it was a political imperative that the Conservative Party should be able to defend itself. So, last Summer, it followed Labour down the Excalibur route.
John Major will certainly find the speed of information a great asset for press conferences. The usual procedure is that, when Major announces a press conference, Labour also calls one, schedules it an hour earlier, and uses it to raise sensitive issues questioning Government plans. This minimises the time Major has to prepare counter-arguments. Previously, he had been forced to mostly ad lib, but now researchers using Excalibur can, within minutes, furnish him with detailed information to refute Labour?s claims.
In this sense, the election will become more a war of attrition, with MPs placing greater reliance on researchers to provide the pertinent facts that will hopefully wear down the opposition?s argument.
But, given that it is the researchers and PAs that do the hands-on work when it comes to technology, how will these changes affect the average MP? And do they genuinely rate IT, or is it simply another smiling baby to be photographed with?
One senior Tory strategist at Conservative Central Office believes that although there have been many overblown claims made of Excalibur, MPs will indeed notice a difference. ?I find a lot of comments about Excalibur and computerisation hilarious,? he says. ?It?s only as good as the people who operate it. The fact is, the next election will be decided on tax and trust, not Excalibur and email. But there?s no question that it is useful and has made us more effective.?
He added that, for example, in the Harriet Harman case where the MP sent her child to a selective rather than a comprehensive school, Excalibur was used to look up Labour policy on the issue and any relevant information which might point to inconsistencies, cracks in the Labour Party front. Excalibur?s capacity for such tasks is impressive, thanks to its long memory: documentation on the Labour party dating back to 1929 has been scanned into the system, stored on vast numbers of CD-ROMS.
The Conservatives are also using email, although according to an IT department spokesman, internal email is still being ?rigged-up? via Microsoft Exchange. Documentation and answers to policy or strategic questions are being sent via email, not just around Westminster, but also to constituency sites. ?It has speeded up the communications process considerably,? says the IT spokesman.
In addition, a Novell-based network, running off an Apricot server, has been installed on the premises, and there is a plan to attach Excalibur to the system when the cables have been upgraded to 100Mbit. There is also an in-house publishing team, which produces Party papers such as Messenger and In Touch, and sends pages to printers via an ISDN link.
According to the spokesman, further IT investments are in the pipeline. The aim is to get all the machinery in place, leaving MPs and researchers to worry about the quality and use of information, and not whether they can get the facts together in the first place ? let alone on time.
On both sides, political faux pas are bound to be made, but where once these might have gone undetected or at least unchallenged, now it is likely that every speech and sound-bite will be analysed and used in evidence against the opposition.
It has been suggested that, in the public?s view, this will do little to bolster the already fragile reputations of party-political, mud-slinging MPs, though cynics would argue that it will mean business as usual, but with greater accuracy and efficiency.
As the election approaches and the spin doctors sharpen their knives, the facts and figures, arguments and counter-arguments will begin to fly ? but are we likely to get any nearer to the truth?
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