Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Book Review: The Victory Lab

Books on political campaigns are plentiful, it seems the done thing now that if you were in any way linked to the senior levels of a political campaign you write a book about it. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's not, but ultimately even the best books represent an attempt by a system to analyse itself. The utility in such books tends to be more about picking out the odd piece of useful insight to build a synthetic composite.

The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg exists at the other end of the spectrum, a book written not about a single campaign but about the process and science of campaigns. In my view it is one of the single most important books which has been written about political campaigning in recent years. It draws together research which has until now been disparate and creates a strong and persuasive narrative to link these isolated experiments together. The bottom line is that every time science gets used to assess how political campaigns are put together, it is swiftly revealed that assumptions are wrong and that decisions are driven less by good science and more by personal preference.

Although it seems like vast amounts of research goes into a political campaign, all too often this is an illusion caused by the sheer amount of polling done around the campaign. Polling is not research. Polling is an attempt to take a snapshot in time and understand the perception of a particular candidate or issue. Research seeks to answer the question of "why?". Why do people feel a certain way, why will they vote a certain way, why will they react to certain types of campaign materials and not others.

Too little is done to understand the motivation of people, and how critical issues are to their support of a political party. It leads to poor campaigns and poor policy making. Witness the shambles of the UK Government currently, lurching from one policy or another, seemingly driven by the polls without an understanding that what people say they want isn't necessarily what will make them switch their vote or energise them in favour of a particular political party.

Private interests and a stubborn desire to asset that "I already know best" prevents good research around campaigning, and this book makes that extremely clear. At the same time, some learnings are already available, yet currently it is poorly implemented proving that once again, it doesn't matter how often a lesson is learned, someone is always willing to ignore it.

This book should be right at the heart of any political reading list. It's a true attempt to synthesise learnings from diverse sources, to build a snowmobile for political campaigns. I am in awe of Mr Issenberg for producing such a comprehensive and vital (in all sense of the word) book.


  1. Great review, will be adding this to my list.

  2. Glad you enjoyed, absolutely, can't recommend it highly enough.