Hell at the Gates by John Lee and Daniel McConnell : Review

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Over the last year or two, I’ve read a few different accounts of Ireland’s financial downfall. In different ways, and from different points of view, such accounts shed light on events leading up to the bailout. But, often, they go back over familiar ground and add little that is new or interesting.

Nevertheless, when I saw that John Lee and Daniel McConnell had a book about the downfall of the Fianna Fáil bailout Government, I put it on my Christmas wish list. Sure enough, the wish came true. So, this week, admittedly late to the party, I finally settled down to read Hell at the Gates : The Inside Story of Ireland’s Financial Downfall. I finished it in two days — always a good sign.

For anyone interested in politics, this is an interesting read. The insights into Brian Cowen’s tenure as Taoiseach and Brian Lenihan’s as Minister for Finance are fascinating. The authors base the book on information gleaned from conversations with various sources. The names are familiar — Brian Cowen, Conor Lenihan, Micheál Martin, Pat Carey, Mary Harney and Mary O’Rourke among others. The perspectives, however, to me at least, are refreshingly new. They give a sense of the events, tensions and drama that culminated in Fianna Fáil’s 2011 election wipe out.

Nevertheless, at times, Hell at the Gates is a depressing read

Politics might not take priority over the national interest.  But politics certainly added to the difficulties faced by Cowen and Lenihan and contributed to apparently chaotic and reactive decision making.

All the same — particularly in the final chapters which describe Lenihan’s negotiations with Europe — this is an absorbing account of events inside Leinster House during a nightmarish period.

Published by Mercier Press, Hell at the Gates runs to just over 300 pages.

The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg

For anyone with a passing interest in politics, there is something fascinating about the shadowy figures behind the scenes who work the numbers to maximise the chances of their man or woman being elected. This is the world that Sasha Issenberg investigates in his new book The Victory Lab which presents a fascinating insight of how analytics and algorithms are increasingly influencing and shaping political campaigns.

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Most of who have an interest in politics will follow the polls before every election watching for movements that may predict how individuals or parties are likely to perform. But polls, no matter how well they predict the likely outcome of an election, are usually broadbrush and rarely can explain the impact that a particular piece of direct mail or a particular radio interview may have had.

It is that deeper territory that The Victory Lab explores by explaining how strategists are using techniques from social science and other disciplines to better understand and influence voter behavior. While Issenberg deals with the statistics and measurement techniques behind political campaigns in the United States, political observers around the world will find much that is familiar in the techniques that The Victory Lab explains.

The problem for campaign strategists is neatly summarised on page three of The Victory Lab where Issenberg reminds us that “elections hinge on the motivations of millions of individual human beings and their messy, illogical, often unknowable psychologies”.

The fact that psychologies may often be “unknowable” doesn’t stop the strategists from trying to figure them out, employing techniques to mine all kinds of personal data about the electorate — where we live, what we purchase, our age, gender, race, previous voting history — are just some of the factors that may be accessed by campaign strategists to  predict how we are going to vote before we have even decided our voting intentions ourselves.

Little wonder that they get hooked.

It is astonishing to read just how much personal information is available to be mined for the campaign planners in the United States and one wonders if the same level of data could be amassed by strategists in Europe where data protection legislation is different.

From a reader’s perspective — particularly one who  follows elections closely on mainstream media —  it is interestingly to learn that despite all the TV and other media coverage  before elections, it is not the great mass that the campaigners are necessarily seeking to reach so much as the non-voters and undecided voters. These are the groups that, if converted, can be an important factor in the ultimate success of a campaign. Perhaps this explains why, from a voter’s perspective, it so often seems that the parties we support are not really interested in the issues that concern us. They don’t have to be since the strategists know they’ve got our vote already.

Political messages are crafted and then delivered through media — traditional and online — as well as through direct mail and in person by door to door canvassers and there is much to suggest that the latter may be the most effective — especially when the person who knocks on your door is a volunteer and not a paid party worker. Increasingly, it seems, messages are tailored to very defined micro segments of the electorate where the strategists perceive that there is an advantage and where the results that they achieve can be measured.

The Victory Lab also offers insights into the process behind “getting the vote out” and how the strategists employ different psychological techniques to maximize the vote. What is really interesting is how Issenberg cites evidence to show what does and does not appear to work.

For anyone interested or involved in the game of politics — and particularly for the political nerds who love to analyse and crunch the numbers — The Victory Lab is an interesting and informative read. Whether or not you are persuaded of the advantages of academic methodologies over traditional tried and tested techniques, Issenberg will probably get you thinking!

A free copy of The Victory Lab was provided for the purpose of this review.

The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg is published by Crown Publishers, New York, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-307-95479-4, eISBN 978-0-307-95481-7.