It’s over. No more opinion polls. No more TV debates or non-debate TV debates. No more excruciating photo opportunities involving selfies, non-voting celebrities, baby-kissing or high-fiving small children. No more hi-viz jackets or stone masonry.
No more general election action for another five years – Fixed Term Parliament Act and events, events permitting. No more blog posts from me on this election – except for this one!
The press, TV and blogosphere are packed full of views on why the results happened and why the polls were so wrong. There are some common themes that run through the analysis about ’shy Tories’, the political earthquake in Scotland, the collapse of Lib Dem support and so on. It is hard to find something unique to say or an interesting way of saying it but I’ve had a go in sharing my thoughts.
I have looked at the outcome of the election (not every party’s outcome before I get hate mail from UKIP or Green voters!) by looking at three key things that make up good communications – message, audience and tactics.
There are three aspects to message when it comes to politics- is it clear, do people respond to it, does it come together as a story; is there a narrative?
The two big winners of the election – the Tories and SNP – had a clear message – repeated over and over in words of one syllable. They were consistent. They were clear. They also had a message that the people they were targetting were open to hearing. Labour had some slogans and some repeatable rhetoric but overall it fell short of being a coherent narrative. Ed Miliband had started to talk about ‘One Nation’ and used that as an organising idea before the campaign but it was missing from the last few weeks and we were left with a series of individual policies and ideas – often expressed in the negative (i.e. we are getting rid of something or against something like non-doms or zero-hours contracts) but not an overall story as to what their vision was for the future. Labour also seemed to define themselves as being worth voting for because they were not the Tories – this only has limited appeal in England and as the result proved none in Scotland as hardly anyone thought about voting Tory there anyway!
The two biggest issues at the election – as at most elections – were economic competence and leadership. Labour allowed the Tories to make all the running on defining their economic record – ’the mess we inherited’ – and Ed Miliband as weak and easy to push around by the SNP. Whether either of these things is true or not they became the message, the story, that everyone heard without Labour having a strong enough and oft-enough repeated response.
The Tories message was all about their long term economic plan and finishing the job they had started. The SNP’s was about a strong voice for Scotland. Easy to remember and easy to hang all subsequent policies announcements and statements off. On the downside, there was some language used by the SNP – and others, including the Lib Dems that falls into the category of language only used by politicians or political commentators; ‘progressive’. This language switches people off. It is jargon. It alienates.
The Lib Dems had a message but the people did not want to hear it. No matter how clear or coherent it was, no-one was listening. It is the great irony of election campaigns – many people don’t make their final decision until very late – often just before polling day – but to have a convincing story to tell you need to have been telling it for some time – way before the election. The Lib Dems never recovered from their tutiton fees problem – although that was as much as failure of message as of policy for me – and that drowned out everything else they said during the campaign.
The next key aspect is who are the parties trying to convince – who is their audience. This sounds a silly question – surely they want to try to get everyone’s vote but not so. Labour famously had a 35% core vote strategy and then built their messaging and campaign around delivering that – speaking about those at the top (millionaires, bankers, no-doms and those at the bottom of the income ladder (people using food banks, on zero hours contracts etc) but saying very little about those in the middle. They focused on getting Labour’s core support to the polls. It worked for the most part – except in Scotland. I would argue that like the Tories – as Michael Howard proved with a very similar strategy in 2005 – the core vote of both main parties is around 30% not 35% – the remaining 5-10% that vote for them come from floating voters, the centre ground or from parties where they had voted to express a protest.
Labour failed to reach out to the millions who voted in their huge numbers for Tony Blair’s New Labour. That sounds like they tried and failed but I’m not sure they did – they just didn’t bother. They thought that given the electorate maths and their assumption – a very, very bad one which unravelled in the last year – that they would keep most/enough of their Scottish seats – this would be enough to deliver them enough seats to form a coalition with others to keep the Tories out.
It’s not hard to see who the SNP targeted. It was pretty easy for them to follow a map but they did also try – and not really succeed in reassuring English voters that they were no threat to England – a fear that the Tories used to their advantage. The Lib Dems focused their efforts on a small number of target seats – seats they held – a defensive approach designed to help them limit the damage of the expected loss of support following the unpopularity of their decision to join the coalition and then be held responsible for all its worse policies. Their problem was not the audience strategy but again that the audience wasn’t listening.
The Tories for their part had their own 35% strategy, trying to convince some of their former voters who had gone to UKIP to come back with the promise of a referendum on Europe and focused on core Tory ground of lower taxes, squeezing welfare and supporting pensioners. But the key difference to Labour was that they also had a further 10% strategy – targeting – pretty ruthlessly – their coalition partners’ seats – not just during the campaign but way before by busing activities to Twickenham, Yeovil and the like. It paid off. As did their relentless targeting of English voters who had concerns about the power the SNP could yield over a dependent Labour minority government. It wasn’t always pretty but it was hugely effective. In audience terms, the Tories fought on a number of fronts and as result they spread their risk and their reward.
Having a message and being clear who your targetting those messages at is one thing but you then need to execute – you need to do stuff.
As we are so tired of hearing, elections in the UK are now very presidential and follow the American model. That means the party leaders play a hugely important role as the person most likely to be doing stuff – the stuff we see on our nightly news – meeting people, speaking at events, being interviewed by key journalists etc. In this election we saw very little of anyone from the major parties outside of the leaders – except the Chancellor, who wasn’t hard to spot in his hi-viz jacket! That meant their personal appeal, their individual credibility and their ability to look Prime Ministerial (in the case of Messrs Miliband and Cameron) really mattered. This is one question were the polls were spot on – with the Tory leader being streets ahead of Labour’s top dog consistently and comfortably throughout the campaign.
There is no doubt that Ed Miliband was a weakness for Labour and therefore their many tactics failed as he often fronted them, including the excruciating carving of pledges in stone. By the way, Labour were destined to lose (i.e. not win a majority) the day they picked him as their leader. David Cameron was once the best thing going for the Tory party but that changed in recent years with some of the gloss coming off him. He was having a very average campaign until the fire was lit in his belly and he become ‘pumped up’ PM. This was a turning point in the campaign and came at the time when most normal people (i.e. not like me glued to politics 24/7/265) started to pay attention to the campaign.
The rest of the tactics were the usual stuff – very little difference between the parties – all doing the same old, same old. Walk about in town centres, events with supporters waving flags or placards disguised as real people, factories and large machinery as backdrops to make them seem connected with ‘hard working people’ etc etc. All very tedious and all very predictable. But as the were all doing it no-one lost out and no-one took advantage in their use of innovation here, except perhaps the Tories who made more consistent and I think better use of social media marketing.
As professional golfers say, ‘you can’t win the tournament on Thursday but you can lose it”. The same is true of elections. They are not won before the campaign is officially launched and the ballot papers sent out but you can lose it there. In the four or five years before the election the parties and leaders need to start to build their narrative, start to change perceptions of them (as needed) and start to answer the questions they will face in the heat of the campaign. When historians look back at the key moments which led to this result they will highlight the SNP’s 2011 majority win in Holyrood in a system designed to avoid majorities; Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader and then his increasingly old school left-wing, anti-business, anti-wealth creation, class war approach and rhetoric – coupled with some clangers like his conference speech were he didn’t mention the deficit – the Lib Dems politically damaging (although national interest-enhancing) decision to enter coalition; with the signs that the economy was improving to seem to vindicate the Tories pitch to the electorate – this laid the foundations for the campaign to build.
The campaign itself was seen as lacklustre and at time very boring and safe. That changed at 10pm on Thursday when the exit poll was unveiled. Underlining it was a sense that the winners have delivered the right messages to the right people in the right way. Elections are won by giving voters something to support, something to believe it, something the electorate can aspire to. A lesson the Tories surely learnt from their shocking 2001 and 2005 campaigns and that now needs learning fast by others unless they wish to spend the next 10 years in the political wilderness.