Five lessons from the General Election

Barely a week has passed and already a huge amount has been written about the outcome of this year’s election. I spent a lot of the subsequent seven days stuck on trains, which gave me time to think about the lessons for those of us working in communications and campaigns.

  1. Tackle negative perceptions head-on – Labour’s difficulties started at the beginning of the parliament, not the beginning of the campaign. The long leadership election in 2010 gave the Tories space to frame the debate around responsibility for the 2008 financial crash (someone described this to me as ‘define hard and define early’). Without a strong, consistent line of rebuttal, the view that Labour could not be trusted to run the economy became entrenched, and by 2015 it was too late to reverse. If you believe that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ when it comes to elections, then this put Labour in a difficult position even before the first leaflet was delivered.
  2. Prepare simple and consistent messages – If we remember anything from this election, it will likely be Long Term Economic Plan vs. Chaos. As painful as it seemed watching ministers parrot these lines on Newsnight – the so-called Crosbyisation of the Conservative Party – it worked. Crucially, not only was the message about a contrast with their opponent (important), but it could also be reframed easily (also important). So, when Labour wanted to talk about the NHS, the Tories said that a strong health service required a strong economy, and when the rise of SNP became apparent, the Tories pivoted from economic chaos to coalition chaos. Labour, on the other hand, fell into a common trap: they had too much to say. They had a big list of things that they wanted us to be outraged about and another list of things that they were going to do to fix the country, but there was no simple, compelling thread that held the whole narrative together. The Tories had a similar issue in 2010, when the ‘Big Society’ became an intermittent and confusing focus of a campaign that should have been relentlessly about the economy.
  3. Think about your messenger – I like Ed Miliband. I came away from the election believing him to be an honest and decent guy, but he simply didn’t do enough to persuade people that he was ready to lead (the daily battering that he took from our newspapers probably didn’t help). The same can be said for Ed Balls, who also struggled to connect with big chunks of the electorate. It was telling that the Tories, by contrast, benched the unpopular Michael Gove for the election, and then promoted him again immediately afterwards.
  4. Remember your audience – There’s a broad point here that Labour will agonise over for months to come: you have to be able to break down, understand and empathise with your audience. Your overall messages should remain consistent, but you should re-frame them for different groups. Much has been written about Labour’s failure to appeal to an ‘aspirational’ centre ground. At the heart of the campaign were important issues such as the number of people on zero-hour contracts or using food banks, or the struggles of ‘generation rent’, but it wasn’t enough just to ask Middle England to be outraged about these things, Labour also needed to paint a picture of how everyone else’s lives would be improved, too.
  5. Empower your volunteers and demonstrate progress – Lastly, Labour borrowed a small technique from the US that I like, but I know others are less keen on: They sent regular ‘state of the race’ emails to members. These messages were presented as an honest and in-depth assessment of the campaign, and they not only gave recipients a sense that they were getting an inside look, they also very clearly described the progress that was being made – in Labour’s case the number of doorstep conversations.

That’s my short contribution to this year’s election analysis. If you’re thinking about any of these issues in your business – or maybe you’re running a campaign and you need to increase the impact of your communications – do get in touch.

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