[Marxism] Labour 'Astroturfing' the election

Jack Cade jack.cade at btinternet.com
Sun May 22 07:18:13 MDT 2005

[The 'Dispatches' programme will be shown at 8pm on Channel 4
tomorrow (Monday)]

How Labour used its election troops to fake popular support
London Observer 22 May 2005

It's called astroturfing and in the US everyone's done it: the
Republicans, the Democrats. Now it's here.

by Gaby Hinsliff, Political Editor

IN AMERICA, they call it 'astroturfing': the faking of grassroots
support for a politician or a product whose popularity is on the

Now it emerges that a tactic invented by US pharmaceutical firms
to promote drugs - and promptly adopted by the Republicans to
shore up George Bush after 9/11 - was imported to Britain to help
get Tony Blair re-elected.

A documentary to be screened on Channel 4 tomorrow, filmed by an
undercover journalist who got a job in Labour's war room, reveals
how party members and supporters were systematically used to
create the impression of 'real people' passionately backing the

Model letters were drafted for them to 'write' to local papers,
as if they had been spontaneously roused to com-plain about
Michael Howard's tactics - while party staff were drafted in to
represent 'local people' whom Tony Blair could meet on campaign
visits. 'Spontaneous' demonstrations against rival politicians
were also organised, with activists instructed to use
homemade-looking placards.

Dispatches reporter Jenny Kleeman worked in Labour's London
regional press office in the run-up to the election, then in its
Victoria Street national war room - before her services were
abruptly dispensed with. In the programme, she complains that the
war room was 'one of the most macho places that I've ever
worked', describing how Blair's former press chief Alastair
Campbell strode across the room to give Cabinet minister Alan
Milburn a high five while he was on the phone.

She was dispatched to a press conference addressed by Milburn to
help 'fill out' the audience after embarrassingly few journalists
turned up - and was filmed shaking hands with Tony Blair as an
'ordinary' person at a photocall.

She also helped compile model letters for supporters to send to
local papers, complaining that 'as someone who has worked for a
number of years in the NHS', they found that Michael Howard's use
of the case of pensioner Margaret Dixon - who had her shoulder
operation repeatedly cancelled - had not 'accurately represented'
the state of the health service. The letters later appeared
virtually word for word in local newspapers, under the names of
local party activists who did not declare their allegiances.

Such tactics are not entirely new to British politics: when Blair
was first elected in 1997, Downing Street was lined with party
supporters hastily organised to cheer him in. But the Dispatches
programme, The Dirty Tricks Election , is the first to show in
detail how astroturfing works - and how sophisticated it has
become. Campaign materials seen by Dispatches stress that 'more
people trust the letters page than any other page of their local
newspaper' and that local organisers should target it. The party
also kept lists of professionals, such as doctors and teachers,
who were not identifiable as Labour party members but could be
relied on to speak supportively.

Among the American strategists drafted into the Labour campaign
was Zach Exley, a Democrat and expert in internet campaigning who
pioneered the use of emails to supporters appealing for money -
copied by Labour, who persuaded the author John O'Farrell to put
his name to them - and is closely associated with astroturfing.

The technique, which began with Bush's Republican party
encouraging pro-war letters to local newspapers, and then by
Democrats to push Kerry, is said to have originated with
pharmaceutical firms encouraging patients to write letters
praising the effects of certain drugs. It is now so widespread in
the US that country singer Chely Wright was recently accused of
astroturfing a record, when members of her fan club bombarded
radio stations asking them to play her latest song.

Yesterday a Labour Party spokesman declined to comment. However,
party sources said Kleeman had been escorted from the building
within days of the campaign starting after officials became
suspicious of her behaviour.

Labour's tactics were first detected when reporters noticed a
family appearing twice in events supposedly featuring 'real'
local people across London. Rachel and Ben Virgo were not party
members but had written to their MP with a constituency query and
were asked to get involved.

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