James Frayne is Director of communications agencyPublic First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The EU referendum was more about immigration than Britain’s role in the world. The last General Election was more about Ed Miliband’s values than the structure of the economy and society. The Scottish referendum was more about jobs and prices than sovereignty. The AV referendum was more about Nick Clegg’s popularity than electoral fairness. The 2010 election was more about Gordon Brown than the Big Society.
Are all elections essentially very narrow votes on personalities and niche issues? If so, is it ever possible or advisable for politicians to lead national conversations on major themes and to sell conceptual “visions”? For those in Government communications, these are crucial questions as the Government prepares to take Britain out of the EU, to roll out a new industrial strategy and perhaps to fight another campaign to defend the Union.
There are three things we know about the public. One: people have limited time to think about politics and they consume little media. Two: people make political decisions based primarily on their emotional reactions to things as opposed to reason. Three: there are a number of values they hold particularly close and that drive their emotional responses to what they see and hear. (We also know – four – that pictures are more powerful than print stories).
Ultimately, the trick in political communications is telling simple stories that move people emotionally, touch their values system and clearly form part of a much bigger narrative. This is a reasonable description of the way the best US campaigns work. But thinking about Britain, let’s take the coming communications battle on the EU as an example – and immigration policy as a specific example.
An idea: the Government should design the equivalent of recruitment ads that can be run abroad that call on high-achieving foreign nationals to come to Britain – highlighting examples of those that have come and “made it” here. This will send a message to the outside world and to the British public that Britain is serious about creating an open, global-facing economy – but also that the Government is entirely in control of who comes to Britain. It would be a much more potent version of their “Britain is Great” campaign.
Another idea: to sell their industrial strategy, the Government could easily highlight both negative case studies of local problems (of businesses that have closed, families that have been looking for work), and positive case studies of local achievements (new start ups, family lives transformed etc), to justify policies that could make a material difference to people’s lives and whole communities. Building such stories into speeches and interviews would be straightforward but powerful.
Others will come up with better ideas, no doubt, with more space than I have here. But they hopefully indicate that, to answer those big questions posed at the outset, yes it is possible for politicians to run campaign that address big issues – but they have to do so in ways that treat the public are they really are. Abstract visions never work. Practical campaigns selling specific benefits work only when the opposition is weak. Ultimately, the best campaigns find a way of bringing simple, specific case studies to mind that move people and tell a bigger story.