A Two Horse Trot to 10 Downing Street

Paul SinclairBy Paul Sinclair
Managing Director, Public Affairs, Hill & Knowlton UK

About twelve months ago, the chatter was how the British political parties would use new techniques in an election campaign which would lead to a Tory landslide.

Obama’s revolutionary use of the internet would be pored over and replicated. Voters would be tweeted at for the first time. The ‘e’ would be put in election.

Yet now we are in the campaign proper the questions appear different. A Tory victory – while still expected – is by no means certain, and the financial markets worry about a ‘hung parliament’ where neither of the two major parties has the majority to deal with the huge deficit decisively.

The firm focus now is on what the message should be, rather than how it is delivered.

Political scrabble

In the months leading up to the campaign both the Labour and Conservative parties groped around for a message which would grab the public, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown looking for a game changer, and opposition leader David Cameron looking for the words that will ‘seal the deal’.

With the need to balance the budget – or at least to address balancing the budget – THE issue for the incoming government, Labour took time to find the right language.

The instinct for dividing lines saw Gordon Brown try to contrast ‘Labour investment with Tory cuts’. This had little purchase on the polls as voters seemed quickly to accept that there will inevitably be the pain of spending cuts and tax rises after polling day. Labour’s economic credibility seemed dented until they admitted that cuts would come.

Initially the Tories’ response was to seem to revel in the prospect of cuts. Cameron, who just eighteen months ago was still talking about the ‘happiness agenda’ now promised an ‘age of austerity’. There might be public acceptance of the need to balance the books but the tightening of the polls reflects they have no relish for the prospect. Now the Tory leader is trying to re-capture a sense of ‘optimism’.

With the economic outlook bleak and the recovery fragile, neither party seems capable of shaping a convincing positive message. Now they are trying to hone their negative ones.

Glass half full

With the Tory lead purported to be cut from a sizeable 18 points to just 2 in some polls, Labour’s negativity seemed to be proving more powerful. Gordon Brown implored the British voters to ‘take a second look at us, and a long, hard look at them,’ and at first it seemed to work.

But as the campaign started the Tories’ question: ‘do you really want another five years of Gordon Brown,’ seems to be more potent in the polls.

Photoshop wars

So far the biggest impact of the web appears to have been in giving a new role to the poster. Parties often save money by not purchasing mass sites to display them and instead unveiling them to the media hoping they will do the job for them through the written press.

Now viral emails are taking the images to thousands – although most effectively when they have been photo-shopped and satirised to bolster opposition supporters rather than get the party’s message across.

In this election the power of written press will be tested as never before – and could well be found out. The influence of News International appears to be waning if the polls are to be believed and its clout amongst the mass market. The Sun looks soft – this time, perhaps, not even Wapping will be able to claim it was the Sun ‘wot won it’.

The last word

But getting the basic message right rather than the means of delivery dogs this campaign. How to connect with a British public at a historic peak of cynicism about politics after the expenses scandal which engulfed the House of Commons and has left almost every MP tainted.

And what they should be listening to? So far, far from echoing either the method or the message of ‘Yes we can’, the two big political parties in Britain are reduced to pointing at each other and saying ‘No, they can’t’.

An old, base message, however it is delivered.

To get an insight into the potential impact on the House of Commons of an election prediction go to www.hillandknowlton.co.uk/electionpredictor/.

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