On the 29th October 2019, Parliament voted for a general election to take place on December 12th, the first December election since 1923. A near century of history existed between these two dates, with this not the only century wide shift to occur, as on election night we saw Labour’s share of seats in Parliament fall to the lowest level since 1935 and the largest Conservative majority since 1987. The results of the election shocked many pundits and commentators as polling was correct and Twitter wrong. Labour had fallen back, red wall smashed, Corbynmania absent. The Liberal Democrats had failed to make an impact piling up worthless votes in remain seats while losing their leader. All the while the Conservatives remained steady boosted by The Brexit Party standing down and hurting Labour. Given the grand scale of the shifts, the tides of history appear to turn on a wide axis, with the pressure of Brexit exploding into the equation. The key to this election appears to have been Brexit, and as such asks us to question whether this was a Brexit election from the Facebook adverts the parties were sending?
A whole lot of content
20,546 adverts (Graph 1) were sent by the major party pages (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Green Party) alongside Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson’s page, from 1st November to the 9th December. Just 6 political pages sent a colossal amount of political content covering many areas from healthcare to the economy (for an early analysis see here). Innately the scale of the number of adverts sent does not represent the spend, as such Graph 2 outlines the spend of the parties on Facebook from 1st November to 12th December.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats sent by far the most adverts across the month, with Labour trailing far behind. The party stuck with content for long periods, while the other pages generally shifted approach more often through A/B testing.
Graph 1 – Number of adverts sent by page
It is important to note that Labour was spending by far the most on a far slimmer selection of adverts. As such they were spending big on a far slimmer number of Brexit adverts (Table 1) as opposed to the Conservatives, who were consistently churning out fresh Brexit related advertising.
Labour advert examples from across the campaign
Graph 2 – Spending by party
Ignoring the issue?
Examining all 20,546 ads body text for the use of the terms European Union, EU, Europe, Remain, Leaver, Remainer, Leaver and Brexit; the incidence was recorded for each post.
So, was this a Brexit election? The clear answer was yes, nearly half (48%) of all the ads sent by these 7 pages referred to Brexit. This is a high level and signals how central the issue was to the election. However, although the overall landscape of adverts the parties were sending was overwhelmingly Brexit related, within this overall picture for the parties themselves the answer is yes for some and no for others. There is a huge array of divergence as some parties avoided the subject (Labour), whilst others saw it as their sole focus (Brexit party).
Table 1 – Use of term Brexit in parties adverts from 1st November to 9th December
The Conservatives were surprisingly nuanced in their approach, with the party page not mentioning Brexit as much as one would expect, instead the party centrally pushed Brexit content via Boris Johnson’s page. Nevertheless, given the scale of the number of ads sent the Conservatives still sent 2017 Brexit related adverts over the one-month period. This was less than the Liberal Democrats (3525) but more than Brexit party (1846). The important element here is that the party was talking about other things, centrally the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, but also the NHS and policing. The party appreciate it was a Brexit election, but that Brexit was not the only issue going, something the Liberal Democrats failed to appreciate. The Conservatives also appreciated that the best tool they had at their disposal to reach Labour leavers was the former face of Vote Leave Boris Johnson, but equally his marmite character was a turnoff for remain voting areas.
Conservative advert examples from across the campaign
In contrast, Labour avoided the subject, only 15% of their party page adverts covered Brexit and Corbyn totally avoided the subject. 122 adverts from the party page, and 0 from Corbyn covered Brexit. This repeated their approach from 2017, but this time it failed as they had pivoted clearly to a second referendum position as seen the content. The limited content sent was stagnant and unchanging, with it clear the party would have preferred to avoid the issue altogether.
Into the abyss
Overall it is apparent that the Labour party was trying to walk a very difficult tightrope, between covering and discussing their Brexit position and ignoring it completely. Given the reports into how optimistically the party were targeting seats, it appears the party badly failed to both cover and avoid Brexit. Labour were split between an electorate who wanted Brexit and those who saw it as an anathema, the parties tried to walk the tightrope, faltered and fell into near abyss.
This failure in the basics of findings the right messages for the right voters signals the poor campaign Labour had. Labour tried to boost their organic popularity by advertising their Facebook content, but this failed to reach the important voters at this election. Although Brexit dominated the election and was a vital issue, many other areas were seen in targeted ads with it the Conservative Party who managed to weaponize Brexit with other topics through an effective strategy that appreciated nuance, colourful changing content and an appreciation between covering issues of public concern and not being stuck on one issue.