Extraordinary election, political communication as usual

Opinion poll failure and the unexpected Conservative majority revived memories of the 1992 election for many commentators. But, from the perspective of political communication, 1987 is a more useful comparison.

Miliband’s tenure seemed almost contemptuously disregarding of modern campaign wisdom

Then, as now, the centre-piece issues were economic competence (Conservative) versus trust to run the NHS (Labour). Then, as now, Labour was led by a young, new leader, regarded by the Tories as a fatal weakness, but who managed to spearhead a surprisingly impressive campaign. Then, as now, the election ended in crushing defeat for Labour following a blitz of fear messages from the Conservatives and their battering-rams in the press. Ed Miliband endured the kind of Tory tabloid brutality not seen since Neil Kinnock led Labour.

There is at least one significant twist though. The 1987 campaign marked the emergence of Peter Mandelson, and the start of the professionalisation of Labour campaigning, culminating under Tony Blair with the most sophisticated and thorough political marketing seen in Britain yet.

By contrast, Miliband’s tenure seemed almost contemptuously disregarding of modern campaign wisdom: emotional connection with voters, clear political branding, and the importance of news management and instant rebuttal. For almost five years it had been tough to work out what Labour’s national communication strategy was, or even if one existed. Occasionally, some messages seemed to gain traction for a while – one nation, the “squeezed middle” – and now and again individual Labour proposals briefly captured the agenda. Miliband had his moments, he occasionally flared with a bright light only to descend back to darkness for long periods. Weeks, sometimes months, seemed to pass with scarcely a memorable intervention from any Labour spokesperson as the coalition provided both the government and the opposition.

Above all, Miliband’s team seemed not to have learned the key lesson that Kinnock’s campaigners drew from 1987; that oppositions have no chance unless they can engage governments in at least a relatively close fight on the question of economic competence. Team Miliband did little to rebut the accusation that Labour had created the deficit crisis and left the Tories to clear up the mess. Neither did it present a clear and coherent strategy for growth. It was never clear if a Miliband government would be willing to borrow or not, and if not how would growth be achieved? The kind of opinion-former, media, academic and business endorsement so important to building perceptions of New Labour competence were almost entirely absent for Project Miliband. Instead, as Owen Jones put it (Mirror, 9th May) “random policies were flung into the ether” only to land as “incoherent mush” – “people didn’t know what Labour stood for”.

In the end, it was Labour in the squeezed middle; assailed as Tory-lite by the boldly anti-austerity Scottish Nationalists, and as Red Ed reckless big spender by the Conservatives. Miliband had been bullied by the Tories, said Nicola Sturgeon; he would be bullied by SNP, said the Tories. Sturgeon captured the mantle of the ‘progressive’ political brand, and the Conservatives held the badge of competence. Miliband’s flurry of policies, despite some revival of New Labour slogans, offered too little, too late to create identity.

It seemed possible on the morning of May 7th that Ed Miliband might be the next prime minister. Had that happened this piece would have been more intriguing to write because the normal rules of campaigning communication would have been shattered. It would have been a paradigm shifter. A sign that the usual channels of brand-building and news management had been supplanted by new, different and perhaps Arnie Graf-inspired direct means of community engagement.

By Friday morning, it seemed that the old rules still applied. The Conservative campaign, straight from the tried and trusted Lynton Crosby textbook, combined relentless attack on Labour’s weak points with strong core vote messages. It was not pretty and it lacked the warmth of David Cameron’s modernising, compassionate conservatism of 2010. Even if it looked desperate at times, the basic underlying focus on economic competence and fear of Labour, propped up by the SNP, was consistent, comprehensible and apparently resonant. Across the country the political tectonic plates may have shifted, but this was political communication as usual.