Campaigning in a crisis – the race for the US Presidency

How do you campaign when you can’t campaign?

In the UK the scheduled May elections were delayed for a year but in the US there is the Presidential and other elections in November and, more trickily a series of primary contests to select candidates.

Primaries (and caucuses) select delegates according to candidate.  The delegates then go to Conventions which nominate the chosen candidate. 

Normally this time of year would feel like a parade of never-ending contests. Instead the coronavirus crisis has meant many primaries are postponed, and some have now become all postal vote affairs.  And even though there is no real challenge to Donald Trump on the Republican side, and the main challenger to Joe Biden (Bernie Sanders) has suspended his campaign on the Democrat side, the primary votes  will  happen.

The shutdown and postponed votes however means more to the Democrats than Republicans.  Normally this succession of contests would be a massive profile raising opportunity for a challenger.  Instead Joe Biden finds it an increasing struggle to stay politically relevant.  While State Governors and Federal legislators have an obvious platform, he doesn’t.

Biden can of course organise on line Town Hall meetings and he can broadcast statements. But the logistical challenge is more easily solvable than that of message and profile.  In news terms the only game in town is coronavirus and the response of Donald Trump.   Biden is campaigning heavily on this, tweeting to attack previous lack of preparation, for example this one from April 4  “In January, while Donald Trump was downplaying COVID-19, I wrote an op-ed calling for immediate action to combat the growing threat. In it, I also said Trump was the worst possible leader to deal with a public health crisis. I stand by that statement.”.  The Democratic  presumptive nominee  is taking care however to accompany his attacks with proactive suggestions such as the Biden Plan

There is one primary date that didn’t change – Wisconsin.  Most primaries are run by the State so the State legislature makes the decision.  And in this case Wisconsin kept its date (7 April) with a small window of opportunity for postal ballots to arrive back seven days later. 

The Democratic Party Convention, at which the Presidential and Vice – Presidential candidates are nominated, has been shifted back to mid- August but even with the new date it is not at all clear how much of the normal Convention can take place.

And of course in the Democratic Party the focus now moves even more closely to the Biden Vice-Presidential pick.

Edge Hill University’s politics courses include a specialist module on US Politics.

Voting from behind bars – more changes on the way?

For many UK politicians, the question of votes for prisoners is politically toxic.  David Cameron said the prospect made him feel physically ill and when the issue has come up in Parliament it’s been a rare person who has ventured an opinion in favour.

But the tide could be moving in favour of the franchise for those behind bars.

UK legislation has long excluded prisoners from voting.  This blanket ban was challenged back in 2005 in Hirst vs United Kingdom with the European Court of Human Rights ruling that a whole group could not be excluded in that way.  The government however was reluctant to make any changes arguing that part of the punishment of being in prison was losing those sort of rights.  The stalemate on the issue continued until 2017 when a handful  of prisoners, those out on temporary licence, gained the franchise.  It’s worth saying here that those on remand –  in a prison but not actually convicted of anything – have always retained the right to vote, whether aware of it or not.

The number of those on temporary licence is small enough for few people to notice.  But changes in Scotland and potentially in Wales this year could open the door to more pressure to bring prisoners into the electorate.  In Scotland a Bill to, among other things,  extend voting rights to certain prisoners – those with a sentence up to 12 months –   gained royal assent in early April and is now a law.  That means the right to vote in local elections and the poll for the Scottish Parliament.  There won’t be polling stations in prisons.  Instead inmates will be registered at their old address and will make their choice by post or proxy.

In Wales another Bill on voting will be discussed in the Senedd  plenary session today (8  April).  The Welsh Government is intending to add amendments so that prisoners with sentences of up to four years could vote in Welsh local elections.

Opinions on voting for prisoners vary dramatically.  In some countries voting rights for prisoners are widespread.  This includes Ireland, which saw inmates vote for the first time in 2007, and Canada.  Some countries, such as Ukraine, set up polling stations inside prisons, sending the votes back to the prisoners’ home areas.

Yet in other parts of the world it is not just prisoners who can’t vote also but those who have served their sentence.  In the US some States ban those with felony convictions from ever voting again. (Felonies are the serious crimes)  This is being challenged with a potentially significant court case later this month.  In Florida,  voters supported a plan to allow give the vote back to a large number of ex -felons. (In the US there are often referendum type votes on policy issues at election time).  The State legislature thought differently however and came up with a plan to block the scheme.  Now a Florida Court is to rule on whether the legislature or the voters will get their way. The whole thing is all very technical,  but the upshot is that the franchise could be extended in a meaningful way.  And of course civil rights campaigners from elsewhere in the US are keen to build on any success in Florida.

Over time democracies  have generally widened the franchise.  We’ve seen changes to voting ages and we’ve seen gender, class and financial restrictions removed.  It will be interesting to see what further changes are made or resisted when it comes to those in jail.

Edge Hill University’s politics courses include a specialist module on Elections and Voting Systems as well as material about analysing democracies and constitutional change.

How do Parliaments cope in a ‘lock down’?

In a public health crisis such as coronavirus, buildings have had to be closed and gatherings banned.  That has included political institutions such as the House of Commons, which went into recess early.

Yet if Parliament cannot meet, not only can there be no legislative progress, there also can’t be proper scrutiny of the Government. 

The problem is not just a UK Parliament one, bodies around the world are having to find ways of balancing protecting health with protecting democracy.

Those familiar with the UK House of Commons and Lords will realise the problem.  Members are crowded onto benches.  Voting takes place in jammed division lobbies.  The maze of passage ways doesn’t lend itself to social distancing.   Before Easter’s early recess, changes were made to make protection a little easier.  This  saw a “two-shift” Prime Minister’s Questions in which MPs swapped over at half time to allow more to take part and observe distancing.  Questions remain  however about what might face MPs on their scheduled return on 21 April with the Speaker and others examining whether some MPs could take part remotely.  If possible and agreed, that could mean a very different feel to Prime Minister’s Questions.

A Commons recess doesn’t necessarily mean an end to activity.  Select Committees have been meeting and taking evidence remotely with, for example, the Home Affairs Select Committee holding a video conference with witnesses on 6 April.

There was some disquiet about the earlier than expected start to the recess.  Some opposition MPs argued that the scrutiny and challenge role of Parliament could not be carried out if Parliament was not sitting somehow.  In the weekly Questions to the Leader of the House on the day before the recess was to start, Labour MP Wes Streeting said this: “I understand the difficulties that we are in, but I have to disrupt the consensus: I do not think it is right for Parliament to go into recess early, and I am worried about how long it will be until we return. I hope that the Leader of the House will guarantee that we will return on the date in April when we are due to do so….”

The Scottish Parliament met to vote on its Coronavirus Bill on 1 April and is now in a planned recess until 20 April.  The design of the chamber makes it easier for Members of the Scottish Parliament to maintain distance.  There are individual desks, which  means members can spread out.  Voting is electronic which means no crowding though lobbies.

The Welsh Assembly meanwhile lowered its quorum – the minimum number of members having to be in the chamber for plenaries and then introduced  on line meetings of the body.  It has another plenary meeting to go before Easter.

As governments around the world take more powers and Parliaments are less able to meet thought has been going on elsewhere about how to maintain scrutiny.  One of the more imaginative approaches comes from New Zealand where a special select committee has been set up, with majority membership from opposition parties, to scrutinise the Government specifically over its response to coronavirus. The committee meets on line and it is broadcast on the Parliament’s TV channel.

In Australia there has been fierce debate about the suspension of Parliament.  The Government planned a suspension until August, but has had to recall members for at least one debate for legal reasons. Opponents of the suspension argue that other crises have not stopped Parliament and that democracy is at stake.

EU flags in front of European Commission

Nearer to home, the European Parliament, surely one of the largest single group of Parliamentarians in the world is meeting (mainly) on line and voting on line. Changes were introduced for the late March plenary with only a few members needing to be in the chamber but everyone able to vote electronically, wherever they were.  Political groups were still concerned that MEPs needed to do more to fulfil their roles to represent and to scrutinise.  This has led to a special session being organised for late this month (April).

Other European Parliaments have adopted rules to allow on line meetings.  Poland’s lower house, the Sejm, had to have an in person meeting to do so in late March.

Parliaments are having to walk the line between safe operation and ensuring they do their job.  But the forced changes of these months may well cause rethinks across organisations about how best they do their work.  Perhaps some of the old customs will go.

Edge Hill University’s political degrees include advanced material on Parliaments and how they function.

The featured image on this blog is a still taken from UK Parliament’s video The House of Commons Chamber.

Taking over from Corbyn – New Leader, Old Problems

Saturday’s (4 April) “reveal” of the Labour leadership result would under normal circumstances be a big news event.  The coronavirus crisis however means the contrast with the big noisy 2015 announcement event will be stark.  There will be no room full of party activists, candidates, journalists and MPs, no clapping, no leaping onto a stage after handshakes for the photographers.  Instead there will be a simple announcement and the screening of a filmed victory speech.

But the loss of the drama doesn’t change the fact that the new leader will have a massive task on his or her hands.  Even without COVID19, the situation facing Labour is tough.  There are real questions about direction, about electability and about party unity.  Those who’ve studied party leadership contests argue that those doing the choosing particularly prize unity, but there is little point in being united if elections can’t then be won.

In normal times the new leader would have a couple of obvious platforms to use to build profile and do some opposition.  These are Parliamentary sessions after the recess, in particular Prime Minister’s Questions and the annual party conference.  These are not normal times however.  Parliament may have to return as a virtual chamber for a while and doubt must hang over the September conference. (The Lib Dems for exampleare to take a decision on cancellation shortly)

The first test of the new leader would have been in just a month’s  time, with a set of elections  including the contest for London Mayor.  The cancellation of these means a year- long build up to a massive test in 2021 when this year’s elections join next years. This brings the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly into the equation.  This is a mixed blessing.  A set of elections this May could have produced “better than expected” results for the leader.  Labour was highly likely to hold on to some significant positions. Putting Scotland into the mix, as will happen next year, risks bad news stories overshadowing anything good.  But at least the delay to 2021 means that the party can do some planning on messages and direction and put 2019 a more distant view in the rear view mirror.

So what are the urgent tasks and challenges facing the new leader?                        

Sort out the party machine.  This is easier said than done.  Media reports have pointed to a dysfunctional set of relationships at various levels.  The National Executive Committee is the centre for most decision-making and the new leader will need to find a way to use this to make changes.

Work out key messages that are believable.  The problem with the 2019 election policies wasn’t that people didn’t like them.  Some were very popular.  It is that there were far too many and it wasn’t clear what was important or how some of it would be paid for. To be credible the party has to have core policy offers and avoid the temptation to produce a shopping list.

Find a way of describing Labour’s mission in a way which is  simple and clear.  Politics is about more than slogans, but slogans often take us to the heart of the matter.  We all knew what Tony Blair meant by “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.  “New Labour – Because Britain Deserves Better” is good communication and has the benefit of appearing to apply to everyone. Compared to these, what does “For the Many not the Few” actually mean, or convey?

Find a (tactful) way to get though.  In normal times an opposition politician could just blast away.  Today he or she runs the risk of appearing to politicise a crisis or to be focusing on the wrong issues.  Yet there are ways of communicating during a crisis which combine an understanding of what people are willing to listen to with a clear message of change.  Chief among these is looking and sounding like someone who could deal with a crisis.

Finally, although this will be difficult, find ways of ending internal party fighting.  Parties are never entirely peaceful, but internal arguments which break out in public are damaging.  They drive away supporters and voters, they can lead to the loss of activists and they generate a lot of bad press.

The electorate in this contest have been labour members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters.  The new leader will need at the very least to take the first group with him or her.  This is going to need an understanding of what the members believe, but also the courage to challenge at times.

Whoever wins will certainly have their work cut out!

The Week in Politics – 7 October

No sooner than they were back, they’re set to be off again! The Government plans to prorogue Parliament on Tuesday (8th) to prepare for the following week’s Queens Speech. That means no Prime Minister’s Questions and generally less of everything. (There could still be time though for a vote on the latest Brexit plan as the order of business early in the week looks very light indeed).

Of course the Commons isn’t the only game in town and over in Cardiff Welsh Assembly members are set to vote on….whether to change the name of the Welsh Assembly. That might sound flippant but the point of the name change is to emphasise the changed nature of the body. Those in favour say Senedd better expresses its Parliamentary nature. It does a lot more now than when it started and the name should show this. It’s not just about nomenclature though. The Bill also gives 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in Assembly (or Senedd) elections. This week is Stage Two – a Committee of the whole Assembly. The whole thing goes on to a plenary debate later.

There’s rarely a week without an election of course, and this week sees Poland go to the polls on Sunday (13th) to elect a new Parliament. At the last contest the Law and Justice Party won enough seats to form a Government with Civic Platform (Donald Tusk used to lead this) becoming the main opposition party. Since then the Law and Justice Administration has stirred up some controversy, with rows over attempts to control the judiciary and stand offs with parts of the EU. The ever useful Europe Elects site tells us that Law and Justice are currently polling 47 per cent with Civic Platform (and partners) on 28. (Poll fieldwork 2 October). That’s quite a gap.

And as if there hasn’t been enough legal excitement recently, the Court of Sessions in Scotland is due on Monday (7th) to make an initial ruling on another Brexit related case. This time it’s about what could be done if Boris Johnson refuses to ask for the Article 50 extention as specified in the Benn Act. There are some key features of Scottish law which don’t exist elsewhere in the UK, and one of these is the brilliantly named nobile officium power. Could be another nail-biter for the Government!

The Week in Politics – 30 September 2019

This week sees the Boris Johnson speech at the Conservative Party Conference, potential co operation by anti-Brexit MPs in the Commons, the formation of a new Government in Austria and a key debate in the Canadian General Election.

Firstly, the PM speech. Party Conferences are designed to fulfill a range of roles. They are about enthusing party members, deciding policy (at some conferences), announcing policy, gaining positive media coverage and generally acting as a shop-window on the party. Usually Parliament takes a break so that the three main parties can have their events uninterrupted by Parliamentary process. This year however the recess has been refused for the Conservatives, who meet in Manchester.

Leaders speeches are generally the final act and crescendo of the conference. This year Johnson is scheduled as final speaker (2 Oct)and will be hoping for a good reception, both in the hall and elsewhere. Of course last time the Conservatives were in Manchester Theresa May had a coughing fit, a comedian attempted to hand her a p45 and various bits of the stage fell down. (I saw it all being in the hall with a group of Edge Hill students). Of course Johnson is more of a showman and you can imagine him working disasters into his act in a way that May couldn’t manage. However this time he will be focusing on delivering a message to people outside the event. It is a vitally important moment for him. Expect plenty of “surrender” and ” Get Brexit done”.

Back at the Palace of Westminster, while the cat’s away….. Pundits have been saying that these few days are a chance for anti-Brexit MPs to come up with more moves designed to make attack the Government and to reinforce the so-called Rebel Alliance. Some of this punditry is based on anonymous source briefings, and of course it’s worth remembering that some sources don’t actually have much in the way of information. However, with cross-party working very much to the fore these days, it makes sense to look out for signs of further moves. The tricky issue is yet again the Vote of No Confidence. Will it happen? Will there be enough in favour? Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) a vote of no confidence doesn’t mean an immediate General Election. But it could lead to one in pretty short order. Parliament doesn’t officially resume until around 2pm today (30th) but that won’t stop the behind-the-scenes work.

In the UK we tend to have our elections on a Thursday, meaning a rush before or after work for some. On the continent they are a little more civilised and have polling on a Sunday. So there are often election results on a Sunday night. This time we’ve had results from Austria where it appears the Austrian People’s Party (in Government before) will be the biggest party but may need Coalition Partners. The Austrian People’s Party is the mainstream Right Wing Party (OVP). Previous Coalition partners have done badly so it remains to be seen who they can team up with. Incidentally, for election and opinion poll junkies I highly recommend the Europe Elects twitter feed. We cover European Politics as well as Elections and Voting on our Politics course at Edge Hill.

Finally, October sees the Federal Elections in Canada. Last time (2015) the Liberals left from third place to first, installing Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. His brand was great then, young, fresh, open. Today however he struggles as first a row about alleged interference in a legal process and then revelations about previous “blackface” incidents have tarnished the brand. Both other main parties have changed their leaders since 2015 so it’ll be a case of seeing whether the newbies can overtake the Governing party. This week (2 Oct)sees one of the few Leaders debates – a French language one in Montreal. Trudeau is good in debates and the next few weeks will be crucial if the Liberals are to hang on.

EU elections 2019: the story so far

In my third article about the Euro elections I’m focusing on the campaigns so far (here are parts one and two).

European elections are always tricky campaign-wise. The constituencies are in fact massive regions which makes it harder to mount an intensive campaign. They often come soon after other elections, which means activists are tired. And they tend to be a contest voters are not that interested in – what we politics academics call a second order election.

This time they are even harder because the last-minute decision to go to the polls means that selection and campaign planning was all a bit rushed.

So parties generally have fewer methods to use. I am going to look at what is being done and how it is working out.

1: The Freepost

In Parliamentary elections, the Royal Mail will deliver a leaflet free of charge for each candidate (in this case party list). This is a massive bonus in areas as big as Euro regions.

There are two types of ‘freepost’ delivery. They can be unaddressed, in which case one goes through every letterbox. Or they can be addressed, in which case a household might get a different one for each resident over a number of days.

The addresses come from the electoral roll, and contrary to some of the conspiracy theories on facebook (including by one award-winning journalist – tut, tut) this is perfectly legal and normal.

If you have a look at your freepost deliveries (they all say election communication on them somewhere) you can tell how organised the parties are and how much attention they are paying to the campaign. Unaddressed leaflets – basic level campaigning. Addressed leaflets – more organised and complicated. These parties are also likely to be targeting postal voters among others. No leaflets – no money or no energy.

2: The Media

There are rules about broadcast media being fair to parties. And, of course, there are Party Election Broadcasts.

But every party wants to find a way of making news.

Heidi Allen (of Change UK) challenged Nigel Farage (now of The Brexit Party) to a debate.

This was never likely to happen, but it was a useful story for Change when much of the talk around the elections is crowding them out.

If it had happened, it would also have been a high-risk strategy. Nick Clegg debated with Farage in 2014 after a similar challenge. And the result wasn’t entirely what he had hoped for.

3: The Ground War

It is fascinating to see the different approaches adopted by parties when it comes to the campaigning they can manage.  Of course, most parties do more than one thing, but these are the tendencies I have noticed to date, either from paying attention to my own region or from media coverage elsewhere.

The Brexit Party has gone for rallies and large public meetings. This was the previous Ukip tactic and clearly enables them to reach more likely supporters more quickly than walking around door-knocking.

Change UK has gone for handing out leaflets and talking to people at existing events, or places where people tend to congregate. Latest posts on activities show a focus on railway stations and local occasions. It remains to be seen how effective this is. In my experience commuters are not always keen to stop and talk about politics. It is however a useful tactic if numbers are small.

The Lib Dems have gone for leaflet delivery. This party has a network of activists well used to pounding the pavements with bits of paper. This has the advantage of achieving a lot of quick visibility and message repetition.

Labour have also been out on the doorsteps and using street stalls. It’ll be interesting to see how much leeway is given to local areas to ‘depart from the national script’.

As for Ukip and the Conservatives, I have seen nothing yet. The Conservatives are on record as saying they don’t want to spend money on these elections, so frankly I wouldn’t expect a ground operation to speak of.

4: Events, dear boy

It was Harold Macmillan who replied ‘events, dear boy’ when asked what would blow the Government off course. But in campaigns, events and how parties respond can make or break. And some events are carefully timed to have impact.

At the time of writing the Change UK lead candidate in Scotland has announced he will support the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems clearly were ready to publicise this and it’s worked well in supporting a Scottish manifesto launch earlier in the week.

The ‘defection’ doesn’t get David McDonald’s name off the ballot paper, but it does cause problems for Change. How the newer party responds will be worth looking at. (I am aiming to write about crisis communications in my next piece.)

And with just over a week to go there is scope for plenty more events, although it’s worth remembering that as most postal voters have by now had their ballot paper, part of polling day has already gone.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

EU election manifestos: unread, but still important

As polling day in the European elections (23 May)  gets nearer, I am writing a series of articles about the messages and communications techniques involved.  Today I am focusing on that staple of elections – the party manifesto.

Despite the, sometimes lengthy, arguments about phrasing and content, virtually no one actually reads manifestos.

No one, that is, apart from political journalists and lobby groups.

They might not be widely read but these documents are one of the key communication opportunities in an election. Why? Because there is a need for a slogan and message, and you can also show which of your party’s many, many policies are the ones that matter.

You can also show how good you are at anticipating and avoiding problems. Think back to 2017 and you’ll realise the Tories failed this challenge.

The whole “what’s going in the manifesto”? issue can also yield plenty of stories.

Manifesto launches tend to involve a press conference or photo opportunity of some sort, plus a massive mailing to journalists and opinion-formers.

So, what do we know about those manifestos already published?

First up is the Lib Dems.

No one can argue that this isn’t direct. The cover title Bollocks to Brexit is unambiguous about where the party stands. There has been some criticism of the language, Lib Dems usually being seen as nice but a bit vague. But here, if there is to be any chance of cut-through, Vince Cable’s team can’t allow any fuzzy language.

Labour’s manifesto is a bit more traditional. The cover, with the line, Transforming Britain and Europe, for the many not the few is followed by the traditionally expected foreword by the party leader.

It looks a bit stale compared to some of the productions by its rivals. But given the row about what to put in the document, including a lengthy NEC meeting and speculation about a shadow cabinet strop, maybe unremarkable and workmanlike is what is needed.

There’s been some reluctance from some parties to take part in these elections.  After all, they weren’t supposed to happen. The Green Party however makes it clear that it is ready for the fight. “We are full of excitement to be standing in these European Elections” is the very first line in a manifesto titled Right Now. For the Future”.

The Brexit Party at the time of writing does not have a manifesto. In fact, it’s reported that it has no intention of publishing one before these elections. While not producing this document does mean a loss of the associated media coverage, no one can claim that this party’s aims are not crystal clear.

Less clear are the aims of the Conservative Party, but we are not likely to see a manifesto from Theresa May’s team either.

Members are clearly reluctant to fight these elections and senior officials are saying there will be no manifesto per se. It is hard to think of a message which could be agreed for these elections the party doesn’t want.

At the time of writing, I can’t find a Change UK manifesto. On the one hand this is surprising as, unlike most of the others, they haven’t had to spend time on local election campaigning.

But on the other hand, do they need a lengthy document? After all the messages so far can be conveyed without publishing and new parties like this don’t have a back catalogue of policies to promote.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

Parties launch for unexpected elections

Later this month we have an unusual, and potentially defining, political event.

In previous years, the five yearly European Elections have been low-key. Most parties have run campaigns about anything but Europe. Many voters haven’t bothered to turn out. Electoral regions have been too big for any real sense of a constituency link. And the results, rather than coming on a Thursday night and Friday morning after polling day, have waited till counts on a Sunday when only the very keen were paying attention.

But this time we have an election which wasn’t supposed to happen, and not one, but two new high-profile parties joining others on the ballot paper.

In the run up to the elections I’ll be looking at some of the communications issues surrounding the contest.

In this article I’m focusing on campaign launches.

It’s probably significant that, at the time of writing, the two parties with potentially much to fear from these elections (Labour and the Conservatives) haven’t held their launches. But we have heard from, among others, Change UK, the Brexit Party, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats.

The style and content of those launches can tell us a lot about each party and its current state of health.

Time for Change (UK)?

Change UK, the party based on the breakaway of a group of MPs from the Labour and Conservative parties, is so new that its logo wasn’t registered in time to make it onto the ballot paper.

I suspect in an ideal world the party would have wanted a longer build up before actually contesting an election. But this late May event could not be ignored, given what the founders have already said about Europe and Brexit.

Change UK traveled to Bristol for an invited audience event which also highlighted some of the potential MEPs. Media coverage has pointed to ‘celebrity candidates’ such as former BBC man Gavin Esler and journalist (and Boris Johnson’s sister) Rachel Johnson.

Realistically what we have here are people famous in a particular media environment rather than more widely. But given the objective of getting coverage, and given that this was not a policy launch, it is easy to see why Change would want to point to particular recruits.

Change UK, in its previous Independent Group form, did manage significant positive media attention. But the challenge for a new party, once the initial excitement is over, is to find other ways of standing out.

For me, having seen far too many political launches, this one didn’t really tick the boxes.

What Change needs is something which clearly explains why they deserve support in an increasingly crowded political market. However, they made a wise choice in appointing the media friendly Heidi Allen as interim leader, which will help them look fresher for longer.

Lib Dems and the B-word

The Liberal Democrat event took place later in the same week. There are clear benefits to going first, but there are other benefits to avoiding news clashes, and the Lib Dems’ Friday launch meant less competition with other political stories.

What I found interesting here was the focus on women as speakers and a clear ‘Stop Brexit’ message. This message is also used by Change, by the Greens, and by some other parties, and one of the big questions of these elections is whether it will end up definitively attached to one more than others.

The Lib Dems, however, must be pleased that at last there is an election which is highly relevant to this particular message of theirs.

Back to Brexits

The Brexit Party, which sees Nigel Farage back in a leadership position, has a very clear message too in its name. It traveled to Coventry for a launch, early in the season, which saw some candidates announced, including Jacob Rees Mogg’s sister, and former Conservative candidate,  Annunziata.

The party slogan – ‘fighting back’ – and its clear arrow logo mean it is easy to brand any venue.

In media terms, Farage is usually box office so there was little need to add much to the launch.

What I found impressive was the series of mini launches which followed, with the announcement of star or significant candidates over several days.

While a high profile leader matters, organisers will know that other capable and high profile interviewees are needed to carry the media load. And in former Government  minister and more recently reality show participant, Anne Widdecombe, the Brexit party has certainly found one.

Ukip-ed

Of course, the last Euro election, 2014, was a massive success for Ukip.

That party has suffered since from splits, defections, rows and rapid changes of leader. It will be impossible for Ukip to repeat the previous success. The communications issue is how to position the team so that the Brexit party does not simply roll up all support.

Middlesbrough was the location for a launch event with the slogan ‘Tell them Again – Make Brexit Happen’.

The dilemma facing leader Gerard Batten is whether to talk about The Brexit Party or not.

He needs to distinguish Ukip, perhaps by pointing out differences, but he also doesn’t want to talk up Farage by raising perception of his significance.

He’s chosen, perhaps unavoidably, to criticize, with one statement telling us that the party is ‘a wholly owned subsidiary of one man’s ego’.

To be fair to Ukip, this launch also included plenty of material about policies and plans, but unsurprisingly it is the personal invective which breaks through.

Spoilt for Choice?

Voters can only choose one party in these elections, so  campaigners will need to find ways to stand out and be preferred. This is going to be tricky for those on the Stop Brexit side of things.

Launches and slogans matter, but they are only part of the package.

In future blogs I am going to look at other key comms issues, including those affecting the Conservatives and Labour as they attempt to position themselves on the grid. Is there even any room?

We will soon see.

Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics

Developing the Independent Group’s brand

They say a week is a long time in politics but frankly it feels at the moment as if a day is a long time.

February’s drama has included eight Labour MPs leave the party to become part of the Independent Group, followed by three Conservatives doing the same. The political world has been awash with speculation about more names and those with long memories have been looking back to 1981 and the breakaway that led to the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

So now we have a group (not yet a party) with a website, some social media and lots of coverage.

The SDP had a relatively lengthy period of high profile semi adulatory attention.  Time spans are shorter these days as communications have speeded up, and the Independent Group may find the honeymoon period is more like a mini break.

As they approach the danger period of scrutiny and uncertainty, what do they need to do?

1 Get a leader: The SDP had a collective leadership for a while – the so called Gang of Four.  And the Green Party currently has a joint leadership.  Normally though parties need an identified single leader.  It helps provide an obvious person for the media.  And it helps avoid the sort of split stories when a collective leadership accidentally contradicts each other.

Of course it is easy for me to say this, but choosing a leader is not that easy.  The first issue  is who should choose?  The MPs on their own?  A wider supporter base?   The second issue is the need to be seen not to lean in either  a Labour or a Conservative direction.  And remember, we are dealing with MPs from two different traditions.

2 Think about the name: While the Independent Group is useful in the short term for making a Parliamentary point, in the long term it risks being confused with people who are just, well, independent.  As someone who sat through the rows about the Liberal Democrats and their name (at one point the name Democrats was being tried) I know this is not as easy as it sounds.  But it does need thought.

3 Decide whether you are a party or a movement: If you are a party you need to register, which in turn means having a name and a strapline and a logo.  To run candidates in elections with anything on the ballot other than the one word independent you need to register with the Electoral Commission.  Even the phrase The Independent Group wouldn’t be allowed.  This is why individuals who stand as independents for Mayoral positions often register a shell party in order to stand out a bit.  Try not to be tempted thought to answer journalists questions with detailed suggestions about party formation.  This non glamorous side of politics is littered with technical problems and you don’t want to end up suggesting the impossible.

4 Publish a few more basic policy themes: But don’t be tempted to write huge amounts of detail.  People want to get a sense of your general direction and perhaps some examples of your attitudes on current issues.  You don’t need the sort of policy heavy prospectus that some national parties have.

5 Think about post Brexit: So far you have made it clear that you want a second referendum or People’s Vote on Brexit.  This might not happen. We may leave at the end of March. You need to know what you will be saying if Brexit happens on the day Theresa May says it will.  A People’s Vote is only a short term policy.

6 Finally, work out what you will do if you disagree on a Parliamentary Vote: There may be times in the near future when your members want to vote different ways.  Will you try to enforce discipline (with all the old politics vibes this creates) or will you be more relaxed?  You can be sure that some parties will try to create situations which could cause split voting.  Whatever happens you need to know what you are saying about this.