James Horrax worked as a consultant to Lynton Crosby and for Boris Johnson’s successful 2008 campaign for London Mayor.
I learned a vast amount at the knee of the Wizard of Oz, Lynton Crosby and perhaps the most important and inviolable rule of any campaign is this: message matters most. But just as important is the skill Boris Johnson ascribed to Charles Kennedy (and which he has in spades to boot himself): the ability to speak human.
In the heat of a closely-fought campaign, message discipline, simplicity, relevance and salience are utterly critical. It sounds straightforward enough, but professional politicians often miss the importance of them.
The 2015 General Election victory was a stunning example of how with the rigorous marshalling of message discipline (principally through the ‘long-term economic plan’), and the clear targeting of key voter groups, message does matter most.
The success of the message was predicated on not simply the Conservatives being trusted more on the economy, it was how that related to the challenges modern Britain faces.
“You can only have a strong NHS, with a strong economy to pay for it.” “We can only have national security by securing economic security.” By making every message an economic message, the campaign played to the Tories’ greatest strengths.
And yet, and yet, there is a time to stop campaigning and start governing. There comes a point where the bible of messages referred to by most frontline politicians, the (in)famous Lines to Take document, becomes an anchor which weighs uncomfortably in public discourse.
For this reason, I studiously avoid watching shows like Question Time. The show has become an exercise in political PR – who can remember their lines best and get a few witty asides in – and that’s before you get to just how ‘balanced and representative’ the audience or panel is of British public opinion. But I digress. Last Thursday, like a moth to a flame, I ignored every sensible objection and watched.
While happily watching the ongoing meltdown of the British Left (quite how Ken Livingstone is still trusted with a microphone and soapbox is beyond me) my wife and I were left infuriated by Matthew Hancock’s turn. He doesn’t appear to have stopped fighting the 2015 General Election!
Message discipline is crucial – and in stark contrast to Her Majesty’s Not Really Very Loyal Opposition, a consistent message is not only important but a key differentiator. But there’s a difference between being ‘on-message’ and slavishly trotting out word-for-word CCHQ’s lines. It is also the difference between earning your audience’s respect and showing them contempt.
Towards the end of the show, Hancock was challenged by an audience member about the cuts experienced by Trafford Council which left her autistic son unable to attend college and left her believing he had been ‘written off’.
Completely misreading the audience’s mood, Hancock responded that ‘if we don’t have a country that lives within its means…It is not flannel to want to deal with the deficit’.
This coldly delivered line went down as well as a bacon sandwich at a Bar Mitzvah. Hancock was heckled and jeered as he fought to deliver his pre-cooked talking points above the escalating din.
A more emotionally intelligent response was demanded – and will be absolutely necessary if and when Labour pulls itself out of its current nervous breakdown, and starts acting like an opposition again.
We will be secure in power for the next five years or more, but it is precisely this kind of political ‘tin ear’ which may cause the Conservatives to struggle in the mid- to long-term.
The Autumn Statement, and the small(ish) cuts made to Budgets (the national debt continues to rise, remember) suggest that George Osborne’s deficit-slashing zeal is nearing its end, in direct, inverse correlation with his Prime Ministerial ambitions. With the ‘end to austerity’ appearing on the distant horizon, the Conservatives need to be ready to explain what their continuing governing purpose is.
I don’t suggest that Mr Hancock should have unilaterally declared what those principles were last night. But in politics, the ‘why’ is almost always more important than the ‘what’. Motive matters as much as message, if you like.
In light of the audience member’s obvious distress, I would have suggested a more human response such as, “I would love to speak with you in person after the programme to understand your son’s case in more detail if you would be ok with that?” It would’ve reflected a Minister who wanted to understand how policies were working rather than simply trotting out what they were.
The best response to personal and often emotionally charged concerns is a personal response. That requires ministers to have the coolness and presence of mind to judge the situation appropriately.
Hancock is not alone in leaning heavily on the crutch of party line. But with the broader political landscape becoming increasingly fragmented and fractious in tone, the Conservatives need to discover a more sincere, humble and importantly, human tone.
Our opponents are in communications chaos. Look at the arguments Ken Livingstone, Matt Forde and Pete Wishart involved themselves in - a microcosm of the discord on the Left of the British spectrum these days.
Earlier last week the avuncular Alan Johnson lost his rag on television with a hipster politics undergraduate who, sweetly, thought that Jeremy Corbyn had discovered ‘anti-racism’. Academics parade their socialist virtues…ideologically purer-than-thou political theorists take it in turns to lambast the turncoat Blair and his three, disastrous landslide election victories…and a once proud ‘people’s party’ no longer bothers much with the country they seek to govern; just a narrow, sectarian, self-righteous (and shrinking) base of support.
So let us seize the moment to engage the country’s hearts as well as their heads. Let us anchor our responses to the public’s concerns not in the language of Lines to Take, but in good, old-fashioned human. It is Corbyn’s Labour Party – and their total lack of message discipline – which allows us to recast our own communications. We should take advantage of this opportunity.
The Party is often credited with having some of the most intelligent individuals on its payroll – and rightly so. Over the last ten years, whether it is free schools, clinical commissioning groups, lowering taxes, lowering welfare bills or increasing wages, conservative (with a small ‘c’) ideas have dominated policy debates. The Right is fertile ground for policies and concepts in the digital era which demands openness, transparency and accountability across all aspects of life.
Proper governing, as opposed to campaigning demands not just that we are right, but that we make the case in the right way too. Speaking in authentic human would be a good start.
The views expressed in the article are my own and are not the views of my employer.