Bits of me are not working correctly. Maybe it is my age or lifestyle over the past 20 years, but I have a problem.
As a strategist I love elections and political campaigns.
Like the columnist and politician, Daniel Finkelstein, I mark key life events around general elections, but his is the first general election since 1992 where I have not campaigned. In fact I will be out of the country on election day and will not be able to vote.
In 1997, I was in the middle of my Undergraduate degree. After graduation many of my contemporaries in student politics moved in to polling, policy and politics – as did I. Five years ago I was undertaking an Executive MBA where my main focus was strategy. Subsequent to finishing this, I have continued to research and advance my thinking in the area of Strategic Marketing and approaches to customer loyalty – which I suppose is the aim of political parties in campaigning season.
I have met with senior politicians of all stripes in the past 5 years and shared some of my insights with them, so I think I have an understanding of what goes on both on the ground and in the sky.
Strategists and the Message
Ideological philosophy is not enough to win an election – indeed it is arguable hasn’t been for decades. Voters are looking at their political parties to present a competent, coherent and credible strategy for government and have it communicated.
A strong political strategy starts with understanding the core values and needs of the electorate and providing a policy response.
Philip Gould’s The Unfinished Revolution features this insight from Tony Blair:
“One of the most common fallacies in Politics is that you can have great communications and lousy policy and win. You can’t. People may admire the campaign, but it won’t prevent defeat. The 1987 election was a classic of this genre… Owing to Peter Mandelson’s brilliance, the campaign was stunning. We still lost by a landslide.”
Political strategists poll. In Netflix’ series House of Cards, everything is polled, from the colour of the candidate’s spouse’s hair to the use of keywords in speeches and the same is true in reality. Political strategies are created in two ways, either top down or bottom up, however even the most patrician of strategies must try and understand the voter.
Watch old party political broadcasts (I am sad enough to be an owner of the old VHS tape acquired from Politico’s Bookshop, back in the day). This was top down politics, from all parties, but with the advent of targeted polling, big data and the ability to customer segment, all political strategies now have an element of bottom up, even if they are really top down. Segmentation by not just demographics, but also psychographics.
It strikes me that the Conservative Party’s entire election strategy is based on three tactics:
The first is the appearance of economic competence. This is nonsense. Yes the economy is improving, but after a sustained period of recession, it was difficult not to get growth, and they nearly managed that! There is a collective short memory and the coalition’s economic strategy did a 360 turn and when the cutting didn’t work, they shifted to spending to stimulate. So when the monetarist strategy failed, they went back to Keynesian-lite. They implemented the policy that they opposed when it was proposed by Labour.
Secondly, the opposition leader is unfit to govern. I comment on this below, but by painting the opposition leader as weak, then ruthless, then “red” even that strategy is comical. This is an import from the USA and Australia, however the big difference from those countries and indeed past elections is that this is no longer two or even three party politics. Indeed the last national election was won by UKIP, the SNP are the largest party in Scotland. Negative campaigning directly against a leader is becoming a zero-sum-gain as the Conservatives reinforce perceptions of their nasty side.
Finally, Identify swing voters in marginal seats and bribe them with things that will make them money. So far we have seen Conservative plans to freeze rail prices, but criticise Labour for calling for an energy freeze, to criticise Labour for unfunded promises, but promising an unfunded amount to the NHS, but worst of all, by promising renters the right to buy from private companies with state money is a scandal, if not illegal! It is like saying a Government will force McDonalds to give free food to all hungry people!
Over the past decade the Tories have hopscotched from “Are you thinking what we’re thinking”, which never really meant anything, other than appealing to people’s fears and concerns, to this opportunistic bag of tactics, rather than a coherent strategy.
Today’s Labour is very similar. Everything is polled and analysed. Labour had had time and resources to build a map of Britain. However when creating the policy responses to Britain’s problems, the response is not strategic, but tactical. And tactically wrong.
The Liberal Democrats will struggle, how can a political strategy sustained for decades as the opposition campaign as incumbent?
The SNP, UKIP, Greens and others fall into the category of identity politics, which I have written about earlier. To counter this strategy it is very difficult as the premise of debate is not even as the vote isn’t about power or even policy, but identity.
Why I Left The Labour Party
When I cancelled my direct debit late last year, I felt, to paraphrase President Reagan, “I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Party left me.”
Fairness, equality and social justice, not to mention opportunity, meritocracy and social mobility remain as core to my identity as they always were, but the leadership of the Labour Party no longer had resonance with me. What I saw was opportunistic, ignorant and a lack of judgement on issues that were of key importance to me.
Specifics? Well, first of all is the rejection of the Blair Government. Britain was transformed under Tony Blair’s leadership. The cities were renewed, London became a key global city and opportunities for people from all backgrounds became enhanced. The response to this from the leader was some kind of rejection, perhaps embarrassment. When the financial system collapsed, the Government supported it. If it had not, then everyone – except the most wealthy – would have been wiped out. This is the reason for the increase in the national debt. Britain got better after decades of neglect and in crisis, the Government stepped in to save ordinary families, their savings and their pensions.
Phrasing the debate as rich versus poor, bashing Stephen Hester at RBS (who did an exceptional job) and the financial sector is the politics of envy. Quite frankly, if the rich got richer, I don’t care – as long as they pay their taxes. Incidentally, I have some support for the “non-dom” argument, not that those who are not domiciled in the UK should have to pay tax on foreign earnings, but how the status of non-domiciled people are determined; that a tax benefit is inherited on a hereditary basis is nothing short of farce! But that is not the way that it is being sold, it is a “them and us” argument, which is not palatable in my view.
Likewise, the producers versus predators rhetoric is also misleading as efficient financing and capital structures are business strategy and not a matter of morality or Government. It is the role of business leaders to maximise returns for their shareholders – including the millions of investors and pension holders – and to form and shape their company’s ethics to the point that CSR is a core part of what they do, but it clearly not the role of the Government.
For over 20 years I have been aware of the rise of radical Islamism, a vicious, fascistic doctrinal movement that is in diametric opposition to the liberal views of modern society. It makes me sad to say this, but throughout history, there is no evidence that a liberal response to this type of evil works (please see my earlier post on Chamberlain).
As tens of thousands of Yazidis were murdered in Syria, what did the Labour leader do? When thousands of radical Islamists hijacked the cause of the Palestinians in Gaza and called for the murder of Jews on the streets of London, what did the Labour leader do? When a Member of Parliament leads a charge to recognise a terrorist backed State, what does the Labour leader do?
Labour took polls, it found bandwagons and the leader jumped on them. These gross errors tell me more about the Labour leader than any campaign. I don’t think he is weak or stupid or indecisive or uncharismatic or anything else thrown at him. I think his lack of real world experience does not give him the perspective to have good judgement and as a result is just plain wrong on the issues that matter to me.
As alluded to, Labour needs to keep the core base in tow especially in those key marginal seats, which includes a large amount of British Islamic votes. Labour’s leader’s response to Islamic radicalism and the Middle East tells me his thoughts are about more about those votes than mine.
I support the Labour Party and wish them well. But I cannot pay money to be a member of an organisation, which has a leader with such poor judgement.
I remember in 2010, I spent the day leafleting in a marginal, but winnable constituency with a first class Labour candidate. By 5pm news was filtering in that Gordon Brown had called Gillian Duffy a bigot when a microphone has been left on him. The Conservatives held the seat, Labour lost a great potential MP.
I am not a pollster with insights other than what is printed in the media.
A million things could change and what I write could be irrelevant as soon as I publish, but as I stand, with three weeks of campaigning to go, this is my reading.
Tony Blair claimed of David Cameron’s Conservatives, that “If we can’t beat this lot, we don’t deserve to be in politics”. He was right.
Labour will not win this election. They don’t deserve it.
Neither do the Conservatives.
The electorate is far more sophisticated than of yesteryear. I don’t believe that their argument surrounding economic competence is such a major driver as the Conservatives want it to be. Ed Miliband is proving he is not a weirdo now that as he has direct media exposure and on reflection voters see right through the bribes on offer as they can’t reconcile the language of “austerity” with unaccounted giveaways. This is bad strategy.
Labour has the best candidates and the best communication. However, their strategy is flawed.
Creating a strategy to win an election is about understanding needs and providing the policy response that works. Neither party has provided a clear policy response. The Conservatives are cynical. Labour’s leader has demonstrated terrible judgement.
This entire election campaign is dysfunctional. I am not enjoying it.
I am delighted to have no emotional investment in this election campaign and even happier to be abroad for the final weeks of it. However, I don’t think it will be long until we will be having another one, hopefully with a different dynamic and different outcome.