Each election, we’re told that our votes matter more than ever before. This time, it may actually be true.
I can’t remember an election where the Institute for Fiscal Studies criticised both Labour and Conservative spending plans as non-credible. I can’t remember an election where Barnsley was in play for a Tory gain. I can’t remember an election where the most realistic candidates for Prime Minister had such poor net satisfaction ratings heading into polling day.
This election has been like no other in recent memory. While the polls predict that Boris Johnson will get the majority he needs, undecided voters and tactical voting on an unprecedented scale mean even election guru Sir John Curtice believes it’s all to play for. The way the election has been fought, from both a campaigning and policy perspective, means a new precedent has been set.
The role of traditional media, namely television and print journalism, should not be underestimated; however, 2019 will be the first genuinely digital general election in the UK.
Boris Johnson avoiding an interview with the notoriously challenging Andrew Neil, which all other party leaders agreed to, would have been unfathomable a few short years ago; not because leaders were more courageous about difficult interviews, but because they would be more concerned about not engaging where their rivals were. Today, it has barely affected his ratings.
In 2010, leader debates were conducted between those who considered themselves genuine candidates for the office of Prime Minister. In 2015, David Cameron began a trend of sitting Prime Ministers having a de facto veto; in 2017, then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd took Theresa May’s spot in the leaders’ debate; in 2019, cross-party leaders’ debates were rebranded as “senior figures’” debates. TV debates may not be dead, but they do seem to be viewed by both the public and political parties as increasingly insignificant.
While the technology existed in 2015 and 2017, what makes this election truly digital is how parties have embraced the change. Michael Gove’s stunt at Channel 4’s Climate Debate reinforces this approach; with the Conservatives’ campaign video garnering far more traction on social media than the reach of the debate itself. Likewise, spending on digital promotion, which allows messaging to land in a far more targeted way than traditional media, is expected to increase across the board, especially in the final days before the election.
That isn’t to say that traditional communications are unimportant this election. It remains a common tactic, for example, for parties to put who they consider their safest pair of hands on the Sunday morning sofas, and no surprise that Brandon Lewis was wheeled out for the Tories. While it may be more surprising that John McDonnell would be considered ‘safe’, he does play to what Labour considers the party’s new base. Jo Swinson, Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage were all interviewed; smaller parties tend not to have the luxury of a safe pair of hands so close to an election, and instead have to go for name and face recognition.
What all this illustrates is that traditional communication does matter, but only as part of a broader toolkit used by political parties and campaigners. Today, the importance of a safe pair of hands on the Sunday prior to polling day isn’t to win over new voters or even turn out the base; it’s to avoid any gaffes that could go viral and lose supporters. The same mentality underpinned this year’s TV debates; who could land the best put-down, who would make the one point that hit the next day’s headlines?
Political communications, especially around elections, are changing; tangibly and noticeably so in 2019.
That said, at its heart a simple fact remains as true today as in any post-war election: the party with the simplest message tends to perform best.
Boris Johnson is polling far ahead of his rivals with a straightforward “Get Brexit Done” mantra. Of course, that needs to be backed up with some substance that voters can rally behind, in this case an “oven-ready” withdrawal deal. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats’ “Stop Brexit” message which landed well in May’s local and European elections suffered with the introduction of a policy to unilaterally revoke Article 50.
The same is true in recent elections. It’s easy to forget, but Theresa May’s “Strong and Stable” message did deliver the best election result for any party by proportion of votes since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide; one has to go back to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 to see a similar performance by a Tory leader.
‘Take Back Control’ won the 2016 referendum. ‘Vote Miliband, Get Salmond’ delivered David Cameron an unexpected and unambiguous majority in 2015.
Simple, clear messaging wins elections. We’ll see if I’m right in the early hours of Friday.
Tahmid Chowdhury is an account director at The PR Office.