Presenting a consistent image over time through the UK’s famously trivialising, variety-seeking, sceptical and antagonistic media is not easy for any organisation.
Now imagine that your organisation is not a corporation but a political party, and that every message you broadcast will be relentlessly scrutinised by commentators with long memories, attacked by well-funded lobby groups, criticised by factions within your own party and ridiculed by dedicated opponents.
(Image: Flickr / David Holt)
This might give you an idea why political communications is often at the cutting edge of communications practice. Here are a few lessons from the recent general election campaign that produced a shock Conservative victory on 7 May 2015.
Elections and lessons
1. Write your opponents history, and your own. Watch carefully how your opponents speak of your past. Guard your legacy carefully. Interpretations of the past are very important. The Conservatives were determined to fight the 2015 election on the economy and the economy alone, so they set to work to craft their own interpretation of the final years of the last Labour government. The result was rather clumsy but would be surprisingly effective. The Conservative narrative of Labour failure would eventually become received wisdom and even the Labour leader Ed Miliband was led into a progressive denunciation of the economic record of the Labour government of 2005-2010. This was to prove a costly mistake, since both he and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls had been involved in that government. The Conservative strategy had worked.
2. Buy the best talent you can afford. The Conservatives had long worshipped the Australian campaign supremo, Lynton Crosby. UK political parties are accustomed to getting talent on the cheap, but they made an exception for Crosby. In 2005, they had engaged him for their election but brought him in too late. In 2010 they had made the same mistake, and so they were determined that he would be involved from the start of the 2015 campaign. Crosby was retained by the Conservatives in January 2013. They also retained the services of another heavyweight, Jim Messina, who had masterminded Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, called the “most technology-heavy campaign in history”.
3. Find a key differentiator. The Holy Grail is to find a killer issue that connects to both your core vote and your swing vote, and that the opposition is weak on. If you find an issue like this, test it thoroughly and then plug it relentlessly in every statement, in every response. For the Conservatives this was the economy and they worked hard to create a sense of economic peril in the public’s mind and to portray the Labour Party as economically inept.
4. Test everything. Tony Blair may have been mocked for introducing the focus group into UK politics after observing them in use by Bill Clinton in the 1992 US presidential campaign but polls and focus groups remain crucial to testing messages to ensure that they penetrate the right groups and don’t cause problems with other groups. The economic theme gave good results in both private polling and focus groups, and so the Conservatives believed they had found their armour-piercing issue.
5. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Once you have found your killer issue, incessant repetition is essential. Whilst this repetition will very likely make for a boring campaign, embrace the boredom by prefacing every announcement and every response with this core message. The media hate repetition but you must persist. The 2015 Conservative campaign was deeply boring and remarkably effective.
6. Talk about the biggest issue. Elections are often fought over a single issue. Making your party’s strongest policy into the lead issue of the campaign is a major goal, but it is also important to accept reality if you fail to do this. Labour badly wanted to make the election about the National Health Service (NHS), but neither the media nor the public were receptive to the issue as the Conservatives had successfully protected themselves against this predictable Labour attack by ring-fencing health spending in 2010. David Cameron had illustrated his personal commitment to the NHS by frequently presenting the story of the NHS care that his disabled son received. Labour, however, seemed reluctant to accept defeat and to move their attention onto the issue that the media were centred on, economic competence and deficit reduction. Labour wasted many of their media appearances by trying to trigger public concern about the NHS despite it being clear that the NHS would not be a dividing issue in the campaign.
7. Concentrate resources for the ground war. The media war ran in tandem with a ground war in the constituencies. All UK political parties suffer from the problem that most of their activists are concentrated in their safest seats; hence safe seats tend to stay safe and marginals tend to stay marginal. The Tories created a mobile workforce of young activists called Team2015, led by the party chairman Grant Shapps, who were transported around the marginal constituencies.
8. Speak in code that only your supporters will understand. It is essential to be aware of the full tool-box of communications tactics so that you can spot them, defend against them, and even occasionally deploy them! The “dog-whistle” tactic is now so well known that its value is diminished. Lynton Crosby first used this in the UK in a rather coarse way in the 2005 election with the “are you thinking what we’re thinking?” adverts. But look out for more subtle use of language like the use of the word “compassion” by Liberal Democrats and Labour to mean “welfare”. The “hard working families” phrase adopted by Conservative was much mocked for being vague but it was effective because almost everyone identifies themselves as being included within it. To Conservative voters it implied that they support tax-breaks, therefore it has appeal to the right without being an open goal for criticism from the left. Labour wisely responded by quickly adopting the same phrase.
9. Find common sense defences for controversial policies. One of the cleverest coalition policies was to cap welfare at £26,000, the average household income. The new limit seemed natural and gained the eventual support of Labour. It actually represented a huge change, with 33,000 families experiencing a cut in their welfare payments, but the linking to the average household income gave it a robust logic, and connected with the “hard-working families” theme.
10. Don’t sacrifice core vote. Have something for the core vote and something for the swing vote. Clumsy attempts to re-brand the Conservative as gay-friendly and green-friendly had alienated much of the core vote whilst not producing any switching amongst the target groups. Once Crosby was in place, mistakes like this stopped happening, although much of the core vote had already been lost to the UK Independence Party.
11. Steal mercilessly. The Tories were ruthless to their coalition partners and the full scale of this fratricide became clear on polling night. The Liberal Democrat’s long-held policy of increasing the tax-free allowance was implemented and then claimed as a long-held Conservative policy. Subsequent focus group testing proved that the public now regarded this policy as a Conservative idea. However, it wasn’t just ideas that the Conservatives were determined to steal; of the 40 marginal seats that the Conservatives were targeting in the ground-war, 20 of them were Liberal Democrat seats.
12. Watch your language. Be very cautious about alienating specific groups with hostile language. Labour’s rhetoric (such as the “predators versus producers” speech) seemed anti-corporate and anti-wealth and was projected by the Conservatives as anti-aspiration and anti-middle-class. It helped fuel donations to the Conservative party and switched off many traditional corporate Labour supporters.
“Daily headlines need building into a powerful story that can develop a life of its own, and that will sap the credibility of the opposing party at a crucial point.”
13. Use fear wisely. The Conservative end-game tactic in January 2015 to associate Labour with the Scottish National Party (SNP) was a good use of fear. Like the “austerity myth” it was only loosely connected to reality (the SNP had not had a coalition with Labour since 1978, whilst the Conservatives and SNP had been in an informal coalition in the Scottish Parliament between 2007 and 2011). Miliband ruled it out, but his delay in doing so was used as a sign of prevarication by the Conservatives. Nicola Sturgeon’s election as SNP leader in 2014 was a bonus (as had been the election of the republican Leanne Wood leader of the Welsh party Plaid Cymru in 2012), since it represented a considerable move to the left for the SNP. The SNP were a readymade demon with their nuclear unilateralism, their opposition to the welfare cap and their demand for Scottish independence. Being able to connect Labour to them was a godsend. The SNP threat was valuable for bringing the lost core vote back to the Conservatives in the final few weeks.
14. Keep disciplined. Communication requires tight discipline to stick to the strategy and stick to the messaging. Lynton Crosby came with a fearsome reputation for discipline. Crosby is known for insisting that agreed messages are stuck to and that all media communication is tightly controlled. Anything that detracts from that core message, what Crosby terms the “barnacles on the boat”, is to be avoided. The schedule of government news announcements (called the “grid” because of the matrix structure in which it is laid out) is tightly controlled by Crosby, and each week in government has a ‘theme’ — the budget deficit, jobs, or home ownership, for example. In 2005, when Crosby first took the job as election campaign head, he ended the freedom of shadow ministers to issue their own policies. All announcements would now have to be cleared by him. From that point on, all outbound messaging was run by Lynton to look for contradictions, potential spending commitments and other weaknesses, this process is known as the “Lynton filter”. Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs), who traditionally had considerable freedom to talk to the media, were also introduced to the discipline of a daily campaign bulletin email, which provided them with the messages of the day and rebuttals of the latest opposition messages. MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates were given detailed feedback on their performance regularly, and ideas for how to improve their constituency profile.
15. Keep it secret. Labour were too open about their strategy, whilst much of the Conservative strategy remains a mystery yet. Crosby’s strong position as a trusted strategist gave him the power of sole command and the privilege to keep his strategy secret, even from Conservative MPs. Labour’s election was more of a public affair as Labour MP’s questioned and challenged the direction that the Party was taking.
16. Publicise and frame mistakes. The coalition made many, many mistakes, but Labour failed to exploit them. Whereas the Conservatives were adept at investing Labour’s mistakes with significance and making them symbolic in order to use these mistakes to reawaken people’s doubts and fears about Labour, the coalition’s errors were not built into a story or even a pattern of behaviour and so they were headlines for just a day or two, and thereafter forgotten. Whilst Labour showed ability at generating headlines from coalition mistakes (for instance by labelling mistakes in ways that gave them staying power such as the pasty tax and bedroom tax), Labour seemed incapable of the longer-term activity of building these many errors into a narrative that could erode the coalition’s major claims (such as the claim of economic competence or the claim of compassion). The coalition’s catalogue of errors included NHS reform, the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, missed growth targets, airport policy, missed targets on deficit reduction and missed targets on immigration.
How the Conservatives maintained a reputation for competence in the face of all the evidence to the contrary must be regarded as one of the greatest mysteries of the last five years, and it was the greatest failure of Labour that they were incapable of building a strong story of failure out of so many mishaps. The Conservatives had long displayed an ability to craft negative narrative from different events; a series of governmental mishaps in the autumn of 2007 had been mercilessly exploited by the Conservatives in order to create a narrative of incompetence and tarnish Gordon Brown at the very start of his term of office. Labour should have learnt its lessons then and developed ability in this vital skill. If a political party cannot frame, symbolise and narrate events, then the UK’s relentlessly impatient media will quickly move on. Headlines are not enough: daily headlines need building into a powerful story that can develop a life of its own, and that will sap the credibility of the opposing party at a crucial point. The Labour failure was a strategic failure and was despite their tactical successes; they lost the war despite winning many battles.
In conclusion, the superior communication planning and execution shown by the Conservatives after 2010 was a major factor in the shock election victory of 7 May 2015. Communication strategy is now likely to be a much higher profile activity in British election campaigns. Communication practitioners would be well advised to closely monitor political communications not just in the UK, but across countries in the Anglo-sphere, since the increasing transfer of political tactics between these culturally related nations is a noticeable trend. Politics is at the cutting edge of communications practice and is likely to remain so.