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.
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