Is Boris Johnson worried about his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat? Facebook targeted communications seen across the constituency would suggest he might be.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the nation, stands at this election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat with a majority of 5,034 (down from 10,695 at the 2015 General Election). What on paper looks like a seat he should hold is arguably anything but, as his majority is now the smallest of any PM since 1924.
The semi-fake news from a few weeks ago about Boris Johnson switching seats illuminates a very real danger for the Conservative leader. It seems possible party strategists may have warned him (Johnson’s seat is on an internal CCHQ list as potentially at risk), but he has decided to stand and fight. We’ll see whether this is a smart decision in the early hours of 13th December, however early signs point to Johnson not being as secure as one might expect.
The Tories, via Facebook advertising from their party or leader page, have so far spent £1000 in target seat Wakefield, but have spent £6,000 in Uxbridge. Johnson’s seat has recieved 6 times the spend of a major target seat; the Conservatives must see some threat from Labour.
While the national campaign rumbles on, there is a continuing and fierce battle going under the radar for Boris Johnson’s seat and thus his political future.
Using Facebook data, it is clear that the Conservative Party are dancing a fine line in their social media campaign. The party are worrying about the youth vote in the seat, and thus are using campaign funds to assure and protect Johnson from being dethroned. This highlights that CCHQ strategists may see the threat as being very real, while at the same time, this small battle in a 650 seat war, highlights a vital aspect of the data infused campaign environment we now all find ourselves in.
Uxbridge and South Ruislip looks good on paper for the Prime Minister. The constituency voted 57% leave in 2016, and since 1970 the fourteen parliamentary elections in this constituency (and its predecessor constituency of Uxbridge) were won by the Conservatives. However, 2019 may buck the trend. The seat features a relatively young population (4.2 years younger than the UK average) and over the last few years an influx of students and young families has occurred, with the population becoming significantly more ethnically diverse. This data suggests this seat could be won by Labour candidate Ali Milani, who requires a swing of just over 5% for victory.
Milani is styling himself as the antithesis of Johnson: “we have to win this seat… people around this country are tired of these born to rule, Etonian sort of Boris Johnsons” he states in this Sky Report. The young Labour activist has however been in trouble for his previous social media content including anti-semitic posts, however he has energised local support and has Momentum’s help.
The Conservative campaign
Currently the Conservatives are not running any adverts in the constituency via the local party page or via Boris Johnson’s own Facebook page. The Conservatives did however engage in a spending spree in the seat in late October and November.
5 Facebook adverts from two pages were bought. Of these, two were from Boris Johnson’s page and featured a quite large spend and significant reach. Both pushed the message that Boris campaigned to ‘save Uxbridge police station’. Ad 1 ran from October 1st to October 16th, Ad 2 ran from October 11th to the 3rd of November.
These two Boris adverts targeted a broad demographic base, with Ad 1 (Graph 2) reaching more younger men (25–44), while Ad 2 reached more women (35–44). This targeting suggests that the campaign sees turning out under 45s to support Boris Johnson as being vital in the battle for Uxbridge. The heavier targeting of men via advert 1, shows a potential tactic, with the party reaching out to younger millennial and Generation Z men, as seen in their Boriswave content.
Three more Conservative adverts were placed via Hillingdon Conservatives, a local party page (Graph 3). Each advert sent was the same in image and text, with the adverts running from the 28th October to the 2nd of November. These adverts covered the local hospital, and were seen by women, especially those aged 45 and over. Thus the target of these communications was much more traditionally Tory in its demographic.
There was however a huge difference in the reach of these adverts largely due to different spends. Table 1 outlines the spend seen via Facebook. Boris Johnson spent £6,000 on his two posts, while Hillingdon Conservatives spend only £300. Reach was therefore wildly different, with Boris’ adverts displayed 700,000 times, vs. the other three adverts 16,000. As with Snapchat ads, Johnson was saturating his constituency with targeted communications.
But who is all this advertising competing with? Looking at Table 1, in contrast to the Conservative Facebook campaign, all the Labour adverts seen are local, being placed via Ali Milani’s own Facebook page.
The Labour approach
8 adverts have been bought by Ali Milani’s page since October. Milani’s content combines local content with content from the national campaign, including a Trump attack advert that was also used by the national Labour Party page in late October. Only one advert is still active (advert 3). Spending has been very low, with each ad costing less than £100 and the ads have been displayed just 23,000 times.
Those targeted depended on the advert sent. Adverts 7 and 8 (focused on the local hospital) were generally shown to women, skewing towards 25–44 year old women. This demographic was vital for Corbyn’s relative success at the 2017 General Election. Overall, as seen in Graph 4, his ads reach more women than men, except for the among the 18–24 demographic.
Milani’s content covers topics such as the local hospital, student fees (Brunel University is nearby) and Brexit. He is unafraid to be combative and negative in his messaging.
Each advert is generally reaching a different audience as Graph 5 highlights., but Milani’s spend and reach on Facebook does not appear to be a threat to Johnson, nor explain why the Conservatives are spending so much compared to Labour. However Milani’s campaign has seen real organic offline activity. Although his campaign online seems constrained by a lack of funds, his offline campaign has appeared to be energetic and impactful.
Below you can see Milani with a huge number of volunteers campaigning to help win the seat. As the Guardian reports:
Volunteer activists from the leftwing grassroots group Momentum intend to flood the constituency in Milani’s support as part of its “Let’s Go” network. Momentum’s national coordinator, Laura Parker, said the strategy in Uxbridge would be focused on mobilising the seat’s large student base at Brunel.
This is most likely why the Conservatives are spending so much in the seat — a direct battle between people power on the ground and targeted communications online.
Online vs. Offline — People vs. Data
This small sample of the wider election campaign says something important about the way parties can campaign, and what is happening across the 2019 General Election. As well as the fact that the campaigners of the Conservative Party are behaving as if Boris Johnson could lose his seat, it also speaks to the new campaign environment.
On the one hand we have people powered organic activity via Labour. Although Milani is using targeted ads, the spend is low and is focused on his campaign organisation. As in 2017, Labour are organising online to bring together small groups of supporters for the doorstep campaign. These supporters are young and enthusiastic, and in seats like Uxbridge and South Ruislip they present a real factor in potentially changing the seats political colour. The Conservatives appear to view this as a threat in Uxbridge.
In contrast to Labour, the Conservative campaign cannot rely on online-to-offline mobilisation due to the party’s smaller membership. Instead, the campaign is spending money on targeted advertising to reach their key electoral demographics.
This is where Facebook fits in, offering the party a gateway into a hard-to-reach younger voting population. Whether this will work is anybody’s guess.
Overall, the fact that the Conservatives are engaging so heavily in what should be a safe seat, is a story that speaks to the possibility that Ali Milani might push out Boris Johnson. Although polls point to the wider campaign resulting in a Conservative majority, the defeat of Johnson would be an unprecedented political decapitation, with this a perfect lens to view the contrast between online vs. offline and people vs. data politics.
Data, targeting and money has upended the traditional campaign game. Should Johnson survive, or even increase his majority, it will have been as a result of wider national dynamics and his investment in significant quantities of locally targeted advertising, rather than him having fired up a base of local, grassroots support.