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Interviewing the AI candidate
In Selby and Ainsty, one candidate is asking constituents to put their faith in AI to try and close the gap between what they might want and what MPs actually do.
We went into this conversation with Andrew Gray, who’s running as an independent in next week’s Selby and Ainsty by-election, worried that the “ethical AI” aspect of his pitch to voters was a gimmick, a way to try and cut through the campaign noise and create for himself a little fame. (In the spirit of full disclosure, we wouldn’t have paid him any notice if he hadn’t raised the spectre of “AI”, and other media coverage for him suggests that it’s worked.)
But in speaking with him, you find that Andrew’s not a Lord Buckethead-type novelty candidate at all. And although the involvement of AI in what he’s doing is lighter than his campaign materials might have you believe (he’s certainly not taking commands directly from ChatGPT), he’s serious about the idea that the deliberative tools he’s using in his campaign could fix the way we do parliamentary democracy.
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In doing that, his campaign highlights some of the thorny challenges of what it means to be an MP - am I a delegate, in Parliament to use my best judgement on behalf of my constituents or; am I a representative, there to reflect what they think and want? Which of those do people really want? And, if they vote for an independent to make a point about the wider system, are they happy to forgo their ability to influence national politics?
A decade ago, someone like Andrew might chosen to be a ‘social media powered candidate’, running lots of town halls, Q&As and live streams and trying to use the conversations in those to steer their path forward. But today that seems completely dead as an idea. The lack of any real two-way engagement with and by MPs on social media platforms seems like strong evidence of that. As a result, many campaigns look very traditional again, very late-90s, wanting to broadcast their tightly controlled message and not listen to anything that comes back. Can campaigns like Andrew Gray’s re-open that idea of a direct, digital-enabled conversation with voters?
This conversation was captured with and transcribed by Otter.AI, then lightly edited for content and clarity.
Full Disclosure: Hi Andrew. Thanks for agreeing to chat at a very busy time for you. Now, Who Targets Me is interested in and works on the role of technology in democracy and political campaigns. Your website describes you as an “ethical AI powered candidate”. What’s the role of AI in your campaign?
Andrew Gray: I'm using an AI-slash-machine learning tool called Pol.is, which was created in Seattle about 10 years ago by the Computational Democracy Project. It’s a tool where people can submit and vote on ideas. I came across it two and a half years ago thanks to a tech friend of mine. During covid we were looking at how polarised everything was, but also seeing how everything seemed to be going so fast technologically, while our elections and politics seemed so antiquated. We saw how it was being used in Taiwan by Audrey Tang, where it’s taken off really well, but it hasn’t really happened anywhere else.
So I picked up an instance of it, and started a nonprofit called Consensus Politics, which I set up on my birthday and gave to myself as a kind of birthday present, and I’ve been using it for the last two and a half years. During that period my health has been pretty ropey - I have a chronic condition - so I had to slow down a bit, sell my law firm and work part-time, but I’ve tried to use that time and money to see if I can make the world a better place.
FD: What have you been doing with it?
AG: We’ve been using it in Harrogate, where we’re trying to build consensus around things that aren’t really party political, such as road safety. We’ve used it in Wandsworth, and in Kensington and Chelsea to find out people’s positions and ideas and to give them a vote on it. In Wandsworth, we had 56,000 votes about ways to get cleaner air, with the average person voting 98 times, so there has been some success.
In my campaign, I want to use this approach to say to people in Selby, can we come up with good ideas together? I have no policies, will you create them for me? Let’s create places where we can agree. Wouldn’t that be refreshing? Being an MP who actually has to listen and evolve over time?
If you look at what’s going on now, the Conservatives here in Selby and Ainsty are running on their 2019 manifesto. That was pre-Brexit, pre-Covid, pre-Ukraine, pre-inflation. But that manifesto was never contractual, and it really makes no sense at all now. The world has changed, but we seem stuck with it. I get why most people think the system seems broken.
So my idea is to use AI to find a consensus, make it transparent, so people can see all the data and what the results are - everyone gets the same information as me - and whether I win or lose, everybody can share those results and learn something interesting and useful from them.
FD: What do you think of the results so far?
AG: 3,000 votes have come in so far, and they’ve generally been incredibly progressive. People are trans- and gay- friendly, they don’t want capital punishment, they want to rejoin the EU. So, as a result, I’ll be the one candidate definitely saying “vote for me to rejoin the EU”.
FD: You’ve chosen to use the word AI, which is a hot button kind of term, and conjures up various images about computers doing the work for you. But the main use is to power this deliberative platform. Are you using AI in any other ways? Or is everything else human made?
AG: There’s a section on the website titled “What is politics?” that I’d written previously on ways of using crowd sourced wisdom in politics. But I write like a lawyer, and lawyers write in a boring way. For a campaign it needs to be more exciting than that. I could have hired a writer, but I’m on a shoestring, so I got ChatGPT to enhance the readability. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that - in fact, I think making things readable for the audience is ethical, and here the AI is helping me do something I can’t do myself. So yes, I am using a little AI for that reason.
But for the policy platform stuff, no, that’s human moderated, and done by me. Ideally there would be someone independent doing it, but the by-election just came along and I hadn’t time to organise that.
FD: Nothing else - no image generation or data mining or anything?
AG: I’m using an agency to help me with the website, but I don’t think they’re using any for graphics or anything like that.
FD: There’s a lot of concern about the use of generative AI - images in particular - by political campaigns to spread disinformation about opponents. Some of that is hype, some of that is real, some is already happening. Most of it though is still in the future, and what to do about it seems like a question worth asking you about?
AG: I think we need regulation and clarity. Our constitution just isn’t fast enough. As a lawyer, I was very dubious about the legality of Brexit. I was in favour of the referendum as a process, but with the vote being so tight, any elements of unlawfulness potentially rendered it illegal, and the lawyer in me didn’t like that. If I don't get involved in ethical AI, particularly in a political sense, someone's going to do it in a nefarious way. And so I feel like a torchbearer for trying to do it properly. But I’m open to criticism, about how to do it better.
FD: To put a lines of criticism to you - you’re putting a lot of weight on the capabilities of Pol.is, and there are always questions about equity and access to technology, who you’re reaching, who is able to speak and therefore who you’re listening to. It’s a combination of access and self-selection, and whether you’re representing the constituency, or just the constituents who are able to and want to engage with something like this, or perhaps whether in fact the system is being gamed in some way, particularly because all comments are anonymous?
AG: If you go to my website, you’ll see the five reasons not to vote for me. I’m not sure I’ve seen that in an election before. I’m trying to be as transparent as I can be - everything I’ve ever written is up there, my tax returns are up there. You can get a warts and all view of who I am.
So yes, questions about methodology are part of that. To participate, you need to be comfortable making your views known online. It’s anonymous, and people can say what they want, with freedom.
But to defend the approach, the constituency is massive. It’s 25 miles across, there’s Selby, which was a mining town, and loads of small villages. My health, and the timeframe of the campaign, makes it hard for me to drive an hour and a half to the other end of the constituency to a village with a hundred people in it.
I’d also say - and I’ve been part of all of the other parties in one form or another - knocking on doors is awful. I’ll run stalls, I’ll stand on a soapbox or platform, but I think door knocking is an invasion of privacy. It’s an incredibly rude thing to do. We put people in the invidious position of having to lie on the doorstep with their kids behind them, asking them who they will and won’t vote for.
So yes, the system has flaws, but at least I have to listen. I’m not going to be dictated to by the people at the whip’s office into voting against the interests of my constituents. The way I’m doing it the voters don’t need to have an amazing overall vision, it doesn’t matter if you’re English isn’t amazing - you can have a go and the only thing that’ll matter is the quality of your ideas.
FD: In our system politicians are sometimes representatives, and sometimes they’re delegates, where voters have to trust them, asking them to do what’s right and use their judgment. There’s a recent ad by one of your opponents - Claire Holmes - the Tory candidate. In the ad she talks about extra police in the area, then asks viewers “What would you like us to do with them? More community police? More drug busts?”. Doesn’t a lot of this deliberative stuff only work when you’re really forced to explore the trade offs? Won’t most people just say yes to all options? How do you deal with that?
AG: I’ve not actually seen the ads, but… well, I’m not sure it’s up to her, after all we have Police and Crime Commissioners for that, but… if I was elected yes, I would have to work and vote on issues that are incredibly complicated. How could I seek the consent or consensus of people? The best answer I’ve got is to use an analogy from lawyering. I’ve been a lawyer for 18 years, we have a code of ethics that means we have a very simple relationship with our clients. The client has a problem, you are an expert in a particular area, you set out the options and the costs, the client chooses one and the lawyer goes off and does it. It’s only at key moments - finalising a divorce, settling a case, where the lawyer goes back to the client. There’s latitude. The client can see their whole file, and I have to be transparent at all times, but we’re given the space to go and do our work. It would be the same here - I’d report back on my work, explain my decisions, show how the data drove a particular decision. In the crazy world where I do get elected, I might ask people to watch videos or read articles before they can vote in Pol.is.
If we’d done something like Pol.is before Brexit, the result might still have been 52-48, but I think we would have better understood that it was going to happen. I knew lots of people who couldn’t stand the EU. After the vote, many people were shocked, as if they didn’t understand their own country. If we’d used something like Pol.is, it wouldn’t have been a surprise at all.
FD: Is it enjoyable doing this? Is the exercise worth your time? It’d be very rare for an independent to win… so what’s your goal? What do you want to get out of it?
AG: I’m a Quaker, and at meetings, you only speak when you feel moved to. I’ve been going to meetings for 15 years, and have only felt moved to speak once, about the death of a friend in a road accident. And… sorry, excuse me… it always moves me when I speak about it. But… that’s how I felt with this. As if I had no choice. Who else has been an activist in the Conservative Party, chaired their local Labour Party and been involved in the Liberal Democrats? Who else has some time and enough resources to have a go at it? And Selby is the next constituency to where I live…
I did a poll in Harrogate about 20mph speed limits to protect children from death and injury on our roads. We found a consensus that people wanted limits outside of schools. We did this 18 months ago, got 14,000 votes, and yet the politicians in Harrogate haven’t done it. The level of governance and stupidity and the turgid nature of how slow things go in local government offends me on the deepest level. Children are getting injured - they could be mine. So, I felt I had no choice.
Am I enjoying it? No. I can’t stand social media, the comments, the unpleasantness. But that’s not actually what we’re like in Yorkshire, we get along with our neighbours, we look after their dogs and cats, even if they think completely different things. So we need to stop pretending we’re all against each other when we’re not.
Can I win? William Hill has me at 50/1. Polls show the independent down in Mid Bedfordshire running in third place. The Tories are vastly unpopular, but Labour are too, so no, I don’t think it’s impossible to win. It would be the greatest miracle of my life, but I really don’t think it’s impossible.
For transparency’s sake, it wouldn’t be one of our newsletters if we didn’t analyse some ads, so let’s take a look at Andrew Gray’s. He’s spent £517 on Meta ads in the last 30 days, targeting Tadcaster and Selby, which make up about 1/3 of the constituency’s 77,000 electorate.
This ad is probably his best bit of messaging, highlighting the fact that politics isn’t just in Westminster, it can be right there in the constituency too.
There are a few technical issues around the ad - it tries to get people to like his Facebook page, which seems like a mistaken use of resources (better to get people to visit his website and vote) and the use of hashtags on Facebook feels like it’s unlikely to drive any relevant discovery of his campaign, but it’s nicely designed. Overall, the quality is a lot higher than a lot of independent campaigns manage.
The Tory candidate, Claire Holmes, who has spent £900 on Meta ads in the last month, is running a few ads featuring vox pops from voters (supporters? party members? friends? it’s hard to say, as they aren’t credited). The one policy mentioned in the ad text is “working with Rishi Sunak to stop the boats”, which sits oddly next to an ad about “Labour only being focused on the south east”.
Keir Mather, the Labour candidate, is by far the biggest spender, with £3,600 of recent Meta ads. He’s targeting a lot of local postcodes, and using Lookalike Audiences to try and reach more potential Labour voters. With a week to go, his campaign has moved into voter turnout mode. With such a large majority to overcome Labour, though seemingly confident about picking up the seat, needs all the votes it can get.
Some other bits:
Speaking of threads, we joined Threads. Follow us there if you’re there.
We also joined Bluesky, if you’re there. We’ll do our best to keep across these, as well as the wider topic of social media’s fragmentation!
Until next time,
Team Full Disclosure
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