28 May 2015

The battle for hearts and minds

By Harry Becker-Hicks, Account Executive at Farrer Kane

It was billed as the closest vote for a generation. The Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck in the polls, UKIP were chasing once safe seats all over the country, and the SNP were on the charge in Scotland.

For election geeks, like me, who stayed up to watch the election results roll in late Thursday night and into the small hours of Friday morning, the tension was ruined somewhat by an early exit poll which showed the Conservatives as the largest party in the UK, by some distance. Leaving the infamous 1992 poll aside, exit polls have performed well in recent elections and, the only question that remained, really, was whether they'd pick up enough seats for a majority. In the end, that's exactly what happened.

The result speaks volumes about the comparative successes and failures of both parties' communications strategies and, as the result suggests, the Conservative Party ran a hugely effective campaign. The messages coming out of Conservative HQ were few and deliberate: The Tories have an economic plan, that plan is working, and Labour will ruin it.

A poll conducted by Opinium for The Observer in February showed just how effective that messaging had become: when asked who they trusted on the economy, Cameron and Osborne came out clear leaders with a 19% point lead over Miliband and Balls.

The Conservatives started to campaign on the issues of Government debt and fiscal austerity in the run up to the 2010 general election using a number of slogans which revolved around the idea that Gordon Brown was leaving children with a 'legacy of debt'. It was a successful message which, as James Kirkup from The Telegraph points out, 'took a fairly abstract economic issue like the national debt into an emotive, personal issue directly relevant to individuals.'

So fruitful was this idea in 2010 that now all main political parties pledge themselves to the idea of 'fiscal responsibility'. It's not only the Tories that talk about 'balancing the books' but Labour, too. In its manifesto, Labour committed itself to eliminating the current budget deficit by 2020 (compared to 2017-18 for The Tories and Lib Dems); a commitment which was made a political necessity by the Conservative's comms strategy. One only need look at the barracking Miliband received on Question Time when he refused to admit that Labour had overspent when they were in power, to get an idea of public perception on this issue.

But perhaps, the contrary argument might run, this is just because austerity is good fiscal policy? The public trust Cameron and Osborne with the economy, not because of effective communications, but because they are actually good. After all, the economy is growing at a faster rate than any of the other G7 nations. Surely, that gives some weight to the notion that The Tories know what they are doing when it comes to the economy.

We're not economists and we'll leave working out fiscal policy to our betters. However, there seems to be a discrepancy between global economic debate and economic debate in the UK. The International Monetary Fund, for example, believes that austerity serves to slow economic growth.

Tory messaging has been so effective, so focused, and so insistent, it has called a halt to political debate on the austerity issue.

Labour's messaging, on the other hand, was chaotic. Do you remember Labour's Promise of Britain? I thought not but it's a good example of Labour communications.

The 'British Promise' was introduced in 2011 by Miliband only to be dropped and revived in 2014 in an op ed in The Telegraph, except this time it had been changed slightly to the 'Promise of Britain'. It was bizarrely referred to once more in a speech made in April 2015 in which Miliband said 'Over the last five years I've been talking about what I call the Promise of Britain ...'

'One nation' - a phrase used by Miliband in his speech at the Labour Party conference in 2012 - was just as quickly forgotten.

In the battle between election gurus David Axelrod (the man credited with Obama's successful presidential campaigns) and Lynton Crosby, it was Crosby that ran out victor. Crosby's insistence on sticking to the 'economic plan' was in stark contrast to Labour's haphazard approach, and the ill-fated stone tablet. The campaign shows the benefits of single, clear message. It's tempting sometimes to present complex, multi-stranded communications to your audience. After all, there is often a lot to be conveyed. This temptation must be resisted. A short, focused message can change the whole terms of the debate.