Before Brexit: The Uncivil War is allowed to drift off into the ether, there is an important point which needs to be made, and yet which has not been addressed in all the reams of comment which have written about it. There is a gaping hole in its narrative. That narrative seems straightforward enough: Vote Leave won the referendum because its leader, Dominic Cummings, and his team of geeks realised that they could tap into a vast, lost constituency of Britons with whom politicians and traditional political campaigning methods had lost touch. This they did by analysing Facebook and other social media data and then hitting the lost voters – put at three million – incessantly with micro-targeted adverts.
Maybe, but if it was this lost constituency wot won it, it certainly isn’t represented by the Leave voters depicted in the film: the old lady in the focus group who broke down when accused of racism and the trailer park couple from Jaywick (the down-at-heel end of Clacton, Douglas Carswell’s former constituency). If they are representative of anything it is of a different demographic which is beyond the radar of even Cummings and his geeks: a group known in marketing circles as the digitally-disengaged. No-one is going to contact them via Facebook for the simple reason that they never use the internet.
Odd though it may sound to MPs, Westminster policymakers and most of the media, 8.4 per cent of the UK population fall into this category. Yes, one in 12 Britons never typed ‘www’, never swiped on anything, clicked on anything, ‘liked’ anything, posted a picture of themselves online, accessed their bank account in electronic form, paid a bill online or had anything to do with the online world whatsoever in 2018.
The Office of National Statistics counts this group, but it does not otherwise seem to feature much in the minds of government ministers or policymakers. When it does, it is only to be shown contempt. Explaining the government’s digital strategy in 2014 the then cabinet office minister Francis Maude dismissed digital ‘refuseniks’ who didn’t have access to the internet, saying: “Our point is that everything that can be delivered online, should be delivered online and only online.” He then offered the small olive branch of a one-off lesson in how to use the internet – as if that would be enough for people who are bewildered by computer technology and struggle with its language and with the manual dexterity required of devices such as smartphones.
The government has certainly lived up to Maude’s promise. In the past week, the NHS has unveiled plans for GPs to conduct consultations via Skype. The Department for Transport has launched a railcard for young people which is available only in digital form. But most significantly of all, it has launched Universal Credit in a form which can only be applied-for online.
It is hard to over-estimate the political damage this has done the government. Some of the poorest, most vulnerable individuals in the country have been frozen out of the benefits system unless they can manage to apply online – something that is difficult for people who are homeless, of low-income and who can no longer even access computers at the country’s eviscerated public libraries. What are they supposed to do? Universal Credit – a good idea in principle, welcomed even by left-leaning charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – has been turned into an electoral liability thanks to the obsession with all things digital.
If Jeremy Corbyn does triumph at the next election, and gets to form the most leftwing government Britain has ever had, the government’s digital strategy will share a fair chunk of the blame. The obsession with technology has cut the Conservatives off from what has long been one of their most loyal groups of voters: the poor elderly. Among over 75 year olds, only 44 per cent have used the internet in the past three months.
This is a group which could prove pivotal in the next general election, but no-one is going to reach them by being terribly clever with social media data. Tramping the streets and knocking on doors might have been missing from the depiction of Vote Leave in Channel 4’s Brexit film but politicians will be ill-advised to take away from the EU referendum the message that the only campaigning that matters is online.