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Frayne JamesJames Frayne is a
communications consultant. His new book – Meet the
People
 – on what makes campaigns work and what this can teach
businesses and other public-facing organisations is being published by Harriman
House.

As we
approach the last two years of this Parliament, increasing attention will be
paid to the relative strengths of the parties’ campaign machines. There are no
settled fundamental “facts” in politics – only public perceptions of them – and
that means campaigns count.

But what
really makes campaigns work? What distinguishes the great campaigns from the
mediocre? And what can all this tell us about the current state of British
politics?

I’ve been thinking hard about these questions over the last year
while researching a book on public persuasion – on what organisations need to
learn from campaigns as they come face to face with public opinion
online. Part of this research involved looking at recent campaign case
studies, as well as interviewing some of the best campaign consultants in the
UK and the US.


During this research process, competence in the same five areas
kept coming up:

  1. The scientific
    approach.
    Bush’s 04 campaign created
    the model and Obama’s 08 and 12 campaigns took it to new levels – the
    scientific approach is a defining feature of the best campaigns. It combines
    extensive opinion research, intelligence secured directly from voters, and
    additional information like consumer data, to create targeted campaigns to
    persuade specific groups to turn out on election day. An array of metrics are
    used to track progress. Efforts aren’t wasted on partisans or desert areas –
    instead campaigns focus on those that might swing, or who can be tempted to
    vote that otherwise wouldn’t.
  2. Emotional messages. In the last decade, as our
    understanding of the brain improves, there has been an explosion of interest in
    the power of emotional appeals in determining voter behaviour and
    decision-taking. Even on issues that should invite a more objective, rational
    approach – like the economy – competent campaigns are using more emotional
    appeals around hard work, fairness, and decency.  
  3. Endorsements. High-functioning campaigns
    take endorsements incredibly seriously, and for good reason. People trust
    independent businesspeople, academics, or even just “someone like me”
    infinitely more than professional politicians. And endorsements are becoming
    more important with the collapse of trust in politicians and the massive growth
    of anti-politician sentiment. 
  4. Organisational
    design.
    This issue gets little
    attention in the media but it’s hugely important in modern politics. Campaigns
    can’t influence voters if they have a chaotic decision-taking structure.
    Parties that take the greatest steps towards the truly professional model –
    with politicians on the road, and the day-to-day campaign run by professionals
    under a Campaign Manager with visible authority – stand the best chance of
    success.
  5. Strategy. Operating in a chaotic and
    uncertain public conversation, where they must simultaneously try to influence
    opinion while dealing with endless attacks and competing narratives, means
    campaigns need to know exactly they want to achieve and how. Senior consultants
    know without a clear strategy to guide their action they will end up reacting
    to every story that comes up, in completely inconsistent ways. The public will
    end up having no idea of their priorities or what they stand for.

These
fundamental skills are broad in their scope, but they reflect the fact that
public persuasion is a mix of "pure" communications skills as well as
operational skills. In other words, the quality of the message counts, but
campaign messages can only be effective if they actually reach the public.  

Obvious?
Some of them, maybe. But not all campaigns display equal competence in these
areas, even if they know intellectually they are critical to success. With this
in mind, how do the Tories and Labour currently line up on these measures?

It is hard
not to conclude that the Tories have a clear overall lead. On the science side,
while Labour’s Get Out The Vote operation is strong, the policy positions the
Tories are choosing to amplify much more closely reflect the concerns of
crucial swing voters. The language the Tories are using – particularly around
fairness (but not the “global race”) – is much more emotionally appealing than
Labour’s.

In
addition, as we witness decision after decision, it seems clear that the Tories
have a visible strategy evolving – to turn the election into a debate on who is
competent to deliver wealth and fairness – while Labour seem almost wholly
driven by day-to-day tactical thinking. Occasionally, their tactical calls are
the right ones, but a lack of strategy means they fail to capitalise on any
gains made.

Only on
the measures of endorsements and organisational design can it be said that the
Tories are clearly not leading, but this is primarily down to their own
failings rather than Labour competence. On endorsements, while they wheel out
businesspeople now and again ahead of big economic speeches, the Tories are
basically nowhere – endorsements and third party campaigning just don’t run
through Tory DNA and never have. And on organisational design, as ConservativeHome have repeatedly pointed out, despite the recruitment of top part-time
talent like Jim Messina, they continue to resist the full professionalisation
of the machine.

The
ultimate judgement on the relative state of the parties’ campaigns will come on
election day. However, between elections, political analysts are always looking
for ways of measuring the performance of the party machines. Polls provide very
useful snapshots, as does media coverage, but people should keep a very close
eye on these fundamentals. They provide a useful guide to how politics is
likely to develop in coming months. 

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