Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he served both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
Political staffers are not natural targets for public sympathy. But I for one will be offering a compassionate glance to those holed up at Election HQs – and in the field around the country – over the next six weeks.
In some election campaigns, the end result is overwhelmingly likely before a stump has been erected. This is not one of those occasions. The voting intention of the electorate is volatile. The platforms threading together the legacy parties are precarious. The communications environment will be relentless. The list of battleground seats is undefined and precedent will only take you so far.
Every decision taken on this election could have a material impact on the final outcome. And the most maddening thing is that you won’t properly know, until the post-mortems at the end, what constituted signal and what was pointless background noise.
This is not an ideal environment in which to house a couple of hundred adrenaline junkies with an addiction to political Twitter; most of whom have a high functioning approach to their work but lower than average levels of emotional intelligence.
As someone who sat at the nerve centre for the 2015 and 2017 election campaigns – but with some relief and some wistfulness will be sitting 2019 out – here is the sum total of my wisdom for getting through this unique experience in one piece. It is fair to say that 2015 was a better embodiment of these principles than 2017:
- Ground your campaign in empirical research but don’t brief journalists about it if you want to win. A professional parliamentary campaign always has a model of the specific seats it is trying to gain and the seats it needs to expend effort in holding onto. These are overlain by categories of voter-types that the campaign is targeting. These models are not scientific and are usually rougher and readier than gets briefed out afterwards by the winning side. The critical thing is not to tell journalists about these seats and voter-types – with never-ending streams of commentary about the messages you are trying to land. Your opponents (if they are any good) will read these briefings and react. What’s more voters will also read them – they are doing so in ever greater numbers – and become immune to your messages.
- Take initiative – within your role – and back your judgement. Speed in a contested communications environment is critical and the explosion of social platforms in the past decade has only accelerated this. Your campaign is not going to fire if you are always waiting for your boss to sign something off word for word. Use your judgement for when the Campaign Director – or senior leadership – needs to get involved and when you can execute of your own accord. The best leaders build environments where staff are empowered.
- Speak truth to power (privately). Campaigns need to be run on hierarchies but this cannot be purely one-way traffic. My overwhelming regret from the 2017 campaign was not asking more questions about seeing drafts of the manifesto earlier. I didn’t push it because the received wisdom was that Theresa May was going to thump Jeremy Corbyn and insistence might have been career-limiting in that specific dynamic. If a campaign is well-led though, and I certainly expect the Conservative one will be this time, then there is no reason why polite insistence should be forbidden. Obviously keep these conversations private as there are few things more internally destabilising than ‘campaign in disarray’ stories.
- Don’t assume that slogans alone will last the length of a campaign. In 2015, the ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ worked as a political communications device because it was backed by a developed policy prospectus. In 2017, the call to action was to give Theresa May the strongest possible mandate to fight for Britain in the Brexit negotiations ahead. The trouble was that we did very little to specify the detail of that future relationship with the EU and then compounded things with a manifesto that put domestic policy at the centre. If ‘Get Brexit Done’ is the Tory proposition in 2019, then you must be ready to explain in some detail what ‘getting Brexit done’ means. Not least to the inevitable challenge that very little at all will be done upon departure and more future relationship negotiations lie ahead.
- Linked to this, sweat the small stuff – it will be the thing that undoes you. In an election campaign, seemingly inconsequential things get put up in lights and become national issues. In 2017, an indelicate answer from Theresa May on fox-hunting got significant cut-through with voters – as did a maths error when it came to the costing of a commitment on free school breakfasts.
- Work to the guiding truth that no individual, no matter how talented, can be productive for every second of every day. You will have to work longer hours in an election campaign than you have ever worked in your life: 16-18-hour days are not uncommon. But it is critical for the short moments you are not in party HQ that you are catching up on sleep – and ideally not in the office for more than 6 out of 7 days a week. The best organised election campaigns run a rigid shift system to facilitate this. You will make better decisions as a result.
- The final week really matters – so save energy for that. There is convincing evidence that the final outcome in both 2015 and 2017 was swayed by voters deciding where to place their cross late in the day. You should not be in a place where professionally you can only go through the motions by this stage.
- Eat well, don’t drink that much and try and do some exercise. I can’t claim to have kept to these rules religiously myself but I wish I had. A fry-up for breakfast, a burrito for lunch and catered curry for dinner is not a sustainable way to earn a living or make a life.
- Try and be a decent human being as far as possible. The conditions I have set out above will be more tolerable if you treat your colleagues with respect and civility. What’s more people in politics generally have long memories – and bad office etiquette will be remembered. If you don’t win, you will almost certainly be punished in the books that follow.
- Above all, keep a healthy sense of perspective. The job you will do in this election pales into insignificance compared to the work and lives of the voters whose mandate you are seeking. If you remind yourself of this every day as you go through the door of campaign HQ, you are more likely in turn to deliver a campaign that resonates.