EU Referendum Campaign – Should we stay or should we go?

If there’s one book you’ll find on most politicians’ bookshelves it’s Drew Westen’s The Political Brain.  This 2007 work said that facts and logical arguments are not enough in political communication.  Even those who are hyper-logical make emotion-based decisions.  And if politicians or campaigns speak to feelings, they are more likely to succeed.  Think back to Gordon Brown’s often statistic-laden statements and contrast with Tony Blair’s emotional, but often fact-free passages.  It’s clear which cut through to the audience.

With this in mind I have looked at  communications by both sides in the debate around Europe.  Should we stay or should we go?    This is an area of contested fact and we’ve already seen a blizzard of arguments. But as the referendum date (23 June) is now known, it’s useful to see how both sides’ comms are shaping up.

There is more than one group on each side.   The Electoral Commission will make two of these “official” shortly. But we don’t need to look at every single campaign group to get a sense of what strategies are being pursued

Britain Stronger in Europe looks set to be the official Remain group.  BSE (slightly unfortunate choice of initials) has already attracted an impressive list of supporters.  Field operations (that’s handing out leaflets and knocking on doors to you and me) have started.  But the front window currently is the website.  So what sense of communication and messaging does this give us?

The first thing that sprung to mind when I looked at www.strongerin.org was British Airways!  It feels very corporate (unlike my sense of what an active campaign normally looks like). The slogan, that Britain will be Stronger, Safer and Better Off, if we stay in Europe, is prominent and repeated.  Front page material included (on Sunday 21st Feb) two “self-interest” type messages and two attacks on, or challenges to, the opposing camp.  A sign-up form for potential supporters is given much space.

Some key components of active campaigning are missing here.  As of 12 noon on Sunday 21st, the website was reporting that the organisation hoped “to see the completion of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation package shortly”. Now I know that this is from a press release issued a few days earlier but given that David Cameron’s announcement came on the Friday night, the lack of a speedy update or editing job should concern campaign managers.

The attack material consists of a challenge to the other side to spell out the likely outcomes if Britain withdraws from the EU and an “aha we got you” type release reporting statements by prominent Brexit supporters.  This second piece focuses on whether Britain would be able to take part in the single market post-withdrawal.  It’s not a bad subject. In fact it’s a very good and key subject.  But here it’s presented in an overly technical way in which the main message is somewhat lost. (I was itching to rewrite this!)

As a reader, I didn’t feel emotionally engaged by the messages on this site.  It felt very safe, almost uncommitted in parts.  Someone already supporting the Remain message would find helpful material, but a neutral reader would, I suspect, stay neutral.

On the Brexit side we have Vote Leave and this campaign was quicker to react to the Cameron announcement. In fact its press release is timed 10.01 pm on 20 Feb which is a whole minute or so after David Cameron’s announcement started!   Leave also had the Michael Gove announcement lined up so was able to post a lot more news more quickly over the weekend. (Surprisingly, the Boris Johnson announcement does not appear on the Leave front page or news section as of 22 February. This may be because he has yet to formally contact the campaign, or because of agreements with the Daily Telegraph, for whom Boris writes a column).

The first thing anyone visiting the  Leave website sees is a sum of money, increasing  roughly  once a second, which is described as  the UK’s total contributions to the EU.  We don’t know the start point for this sum, but that niggle aside it is a very clear piece of communication. And is of course to be expected from a campaign run by a former head of the Tax Payers Alliance.

It’s not just money though.  Frankly a message that is only about money won’t cut through to emotions.   A short video about British ”heroes” is clearly designed to reinforce pride in a distinct, shared identity.  Winston Churchill’s appearance was 100 percent expected, but we also see Emmeline Pankhurst and Alan Turing among the personalities featured.   It’s tempting to argue about inclusions or exclusions from material like this, but the existence of this video is significant for the messages this campaign clearly wants to communicate.

Website names, the actual words that will appear on a url, can be key evidence of the core of a campaign’s message.  Vote Leave’s name is not Vote Leave (which after all is about rejecting something) but Voteleavetakecontrol (a much stronger piece of messaging).  How many of us, given the chance to take control rather than be told what to do, would turn that down?

Vote Leave’s website, like Stronger In, doesn’t feel like an active campaigning website yet either.  Both however are e mailing supporters and asking for activity on social media.

I’ll be looking at the communications by both sides over the next few weeks.  I’m interested in how the tone and content changes.  And I’ll be using Benoit’s Functional Theory of Political Communication to do some analysis.

June 23rd will be a key date for our country.  I hope the communications will help us all become engaged in the decision and cast our vote in an informed and committed way.

 

This post was originally published on the CIPR’s Influence website.

Who’s going to win?  Show me the money

I blogged previously about a conference at which academics made predictions for potential election results based on a range of factors.

One of those factors was money.

It is possible, by looking at the Electoral Commission website, to see which constituency or local parties have received the most in donations in any particular quarter. Parties have to send this information in by law when donations are over a certain amount.

Election campaigns cost money.  Election campaigns in seats which a party is hoping to win, or is defending hard, cost more money. So logically those local parties generating most in donations are those who are main players in tight contests.

It’s also the case that national party fundraising efforts will often focus on particular target seats.  I know as a party member myself that requests for money are being made for some constituencies and not others.

So to test this thesis, let’s look at what everyone would agree is a marginal seat (Warrington South) and what everyone would agree is a safe seat (Bootle).

Warrington South, from 1 September until today, shows £15,000 of large donations coming in to two parties (Labour and Conservative).  Bootle however shows no large donations to any party.  Even if the searching reaches back to 2013, still no large donations appear.

Now of course it is possible that donations go to another part of a political party before being moved to a local account nearer the election. It may also be that some local parties are very active in fundraising terms, but the sums donated are small enough to be under the regular reporting radar. But even with these caveats, the contrast between Warrington South and Bootle is stark.

come cannot be a sole predictor.  After all it’s not just what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. But in an environment in which a ground campaign could make the difference, the capacity to campaign, and the preparation to do that, is significant.

Predicting results.. what works and what doesn’t

Predicting election results is a mix of art and science.  We can all think of polls and pundits in the past who have got it wrong.  But there are some signs observers can look out for to make at least a partial judgement.

Yesterday (March 5th) I attended an excellent event at the BBC in Media City which looked at the North West (the region with the joint highest number of marginal constituencies) and attempted to make some predictions.

This got me thinking about what we should be looking for as indications of potential political success at election time.  So I’ll be writing a few pieces about the various measures and what they might mean.

Yesterday’s predictions, which only involved four seats in the North West region changing hands, used a number of factors including financial donations, polling data, local election results, incumbency factors and so on.  Audience members raised other potentially significant aspects such as levels of activism, key campaign issues and the personalities of the various contenders.

The aspect I am concentrating on today is local election results.

It is easy to look at a constituency, look at the local election results in the run up to a General Election, and make a party-based judgement on those figures.  In fact, in isolation, local election results are among the weakest of predictors of GE success.  Let’s take Edge Hill’s local constituency, West Lancashire.  In the run up to 2010 there had been Conservative local victories in Skelmersdale.  (If you don’t know the area, think in terms of Labour suddenly winning Surrey).

These were unexpected and many felt this pointed to a growth in Tory support that would turn out the incumbent Rosie Cooper.  In fact , although there was a small vote-share increase for the Conservatives, in line with the national trend, Ms Cooper is still the MP and had a 2010 majority of more than four thousand.

The thing is, local elections are simply different.  Firstly the turnout can be considerably lower than in a General.  Secondly, party allegiance can be weaker.  Finally the personality and activity level of a local candidate, particularly one running on an “us against them” ticket can be significant in a way that simply does not transfer.   This becomes apparent on those polling days when a General Election and Local Election take place on the same day in the same area.  Vote-splitting can be very common.

So what do local election results tell us?

Well they give some indication of party organisation.  A badly organised party will not  usually manage a large number of victories.  They give some indication of activist levels as volunteers need to be found to stand and again found to campaign. And they give some indication of local roots and knowledge.

But what they don’t do is tell us who will become an MP.

In 2001, had local election results been an indicator of national success I would have become an MP in Liverpool.  This on its own should be a warning to those who put too much prediction weight on the colour of the local council.

Unaccustomed as I am…..

This Spring sees the last lot of party conferences before the big event.

Some are specific national conferences, like the Conservative Welsh Conference that has just taken place.  Others are UK wide, like the Lib Dem conference due to take place later in March (13/14/15th) and Ukip’s event in Margate. Organisations such as “grassroots” organisation Conservative Home also hold events around this time.

Party conferences serve a wide range of functions, from policy-making, to socialising, from training to selling.  But the ones just before a General Election are those in which each party tries to make the event a “shop window” on vote winning policies and camera friendly delegates.

For everything happening on stage, there is as much if not more going on just out of sight.  The aim is to get the best camera angles, the best speeches, the most TV coverage.

Likely policy announcements are trailed weeks in advance with a drip-drip approach to media management.  Sessions are timed so that the most vote-worthy happen at the times most likely to provide an audience.  And of course the Leader’s speech is briefed out in advance and planned with a good clutch of soundbites in mind.

This might make attending conference as a delegate seem a little pointless.  But party members still compete for places at these events and put great stress on being there and taking part.

As a regular conference goer I find it fascinating to watch the changes that happen as the electoral cycle goes round.  Conferences shortly after an election can be loud and argumentative.  Those shortly before tend to be well disciplined and worthy.

In 2005, Florence Faucher-King published her work on the anthropology of party conferences. She spent years immersing herself in four different party cultures (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green).  From who has votes to who has voices, this is a fascinating look at how the tribes behave.

But the tribe of members is arguably less important at a pre General Election conference than the tribe of media. This Spring, watch out for those manifesto moments.

(I’ll be taking a separate look at any comment worthy party conference happenings as this blog goes on. The BBC’s Parliament Channel often covers large amounts of each party conference so it’s the place to go to for conference obsessives).

Words… words…words

Is there any phrase more annoying than “hard- working families”?  This seems to have entered the political phrasebook and is now trotted out by just about every party on just about every occasion.  Some say it was first used in the 1990s although Liverpool University’s Dr Stuart Wilks Heeg has pointed out a use in Hansard in the 1920s. (Just above the start of column 515)

When George Orwell wrote about Politics and the English Language back in the 1940s he argued that for clear thinking you needed clear language.  He wanted political writing to be more direct and straight forward.

One reason I dislike the phrase “hard-working families” is that it combines vagueness with a sort of “dog whistle message” intended to push certain buttons.  If you think about it, how on earth can a family actually be hard-working (unless of course the children are up the chimney and granny is on piece work)?

I suspect this coming election will be full of words and phrases that either don’t mean a lot or mean a huge amount if you can pick up the signals.

So to join “hard-working families”  here are the other two in my starter list of three words or phrases that should go in the banned box.

“I want to start a debate on this”.  A common political phrase in interviews and discussions which roughly translates as “don’t really know what I think about this one”.

“Firm but fair immigration”.  What on earth does that mean?  If the opposite doesn’t work (in this case flabby and unfair immigration) then the phrase carries no concrete meaning.

Writing speeches is not easy.  Taking part in interviews and debates can be tricky.  So you can see why scribes and speakers fall back on their regular phrases.

But I wonder if, this time, we can have a little less obfuscation and a little more of Orwell’s clarity.

Broken links!

Earlier this week (9 February)  the Conservatives gave away the list of constituencies the party is not targeting  in the General Election.  They did this by including the words “non target” in the URL of each candidate’s page on the central website.

A bit of an Ooops moment!

So we now know, from the Conservatives’ own material,  just how many seats they have already given up on.

Now every party has seats on which it concentrates and those that it knows it can’t win.  If you live in a tightly fought target seat you will soon realise because of the volume of leaflets.

But the Conservatives’ error in making their thoughts clear reveals two key points.

Firstly, there are political activists out there who will check things like URL titles.  Those of us who take great care over what we write and then hand over the production of the links to others have just had a warning!

Secondly , the Conservative list is strange.   Now I am not surprised that Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s former seat) is on the list.  But so is Norfolk North, Sefton Central and Rochester and Strood.

It isn’t that long ago that Norfolk North was a closely fought contest between the Lib Dems (current incumbent Norman Lamb MP) and the Tories.  It isn’t that long ago that Sefton Central (current incumbent Labour’s  Bill Esterson) was projected as a win for the Conservatives’ Debi  Jones.  And Rochester and Strood was the second UKIP by election win last year which surely the Tories should be aiming to take back.

I am sure there will be candidates up and down the country now telling central office to edit its website.  But for candidates who are not Conservatives this slip up is good ammunition.  After all, if a representative’s own party has made it clear he or she can’t win, why should anyone listen to requests for votes.

 

Leaders’ Debates – a lot of fuss about nothing?

There’s certainly been a huge amount of fuss about the Leaders’ debates.  Will they happen?  Who will be included?  When will they take place?

All the rows certainly make for good copy.

But we are missing the bigger question, which is what do these debates actually mean?  How can we read them and their significance?

The 2010 election in the UK saw these debates take place for the first time.  We were used to seeing Presidential debates in the US.  But despite challenges from one side to another over a number of poll contests, the UK had never quite got around to organising them.

The debates certainly attracted viewers.  The first of the three 2010 contests had more than nine million viewers, more than Coronation Street.  Media outlets organised viewer polls and commentators went into overdrive.   Based on audience reception, Lib Dem poll numbers soared and “I agree with Nick” became the latest catchphrase.

Fast forward to election night however and the Lib Dems lost seats.  So how significant are debates and how do we read them?

The first key point is timing.  Today any UK voter can get a postal vote without giving a specific reason.  With postal voting increasing, there are effectively two polling days.  Evidence shows that most postal voters fill in their papers as soon as they get them.  Any debate after this mailing then can only have an effect on some of the electorate.

The second key point is interpretation.  Much of the coverage of the debates last time was not about what was said, but who had won.  And this was based not just on polls but on sophisticated spin operations.  Our first leaders’ debates also saw our first post- debate spin rooms.  After each event teams from the three parties worked on reporters and commentators who were there in person.  Party staff and high profile politicians like Paddy Ashdown answered questions about “how their guy had done”.  Common practice in the US,  this was dramatized in US drama the West Wing with spinner CJ Cregg and surrogates for the candidate fighting their way through the throng.

Attempts have been made to assess whether the 2010 debates had a significant effect on voting decisions.  Pattie and Johnston[1] looked at data from the British Election survey to see if the events had been persuasive in any way. And while there is evidence of polls and opinions being influenced, particularly by the first of the three debates, Pattie and Johnston call for some perspective.  “Most voters,” they write “had made up their minds long before the campaign began, let alone the debates held.  For them, the debates may have confirmed them in that decision, or may have had no effect at all”.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) means we have known the General Election date for quite some time.  That’s quite some time to make up our minds.  Leaders’ debates may be the icing on the cake for the Newsnight crowd, but they are unlikely to really change minds.

[1] Pattie and Johnston (2011) A Tale of Sound and Fury, Signifying Something?  Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. 21:2 147-177.

Oh no.. not another one!

In the run up to this election there’s a torrent of comment about unpredictability and possible deals.  I have even heard people talk about another election shortly after this one.  Certainly after the 2010 election many believed that a second election would follow quickly if a suitable deal couldn’t be done.

The most recent example of this is of course back in 1974.  It’s this topic that formed the theme of this weekend’s BBC Radio Archive on 4 (7 Feb).

But we are in different territory now as the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) not only tells us exactly when the next election should be, it makes it much, much harder to have one in between.

People from the US and other countries with fixed term elections must have thought us very strange pre 2010.  A democracy in which effectively the Prime Minister could load the dice, time the economic tide, call a contest when he or she was already in the lead.  As a political activist I remember the Gordon Brown election that never was.  Half way through a leaflet delivery, with speculation at fever pitch that the PM was about to go to the Palace, I was phoned to say that Brown had announced there wouldn’t be an early poll. Very much a “calm down” moment.  Steve Richards, in Whatever It Takes, paints a dramatic picture of the tensions around the decision on whether to call an election or not.  The rest is history, but the point is that he (Brown)  had the power.

So are we better off with Fixed Term Parliaments?  It’s certainly more democratic if the PM can’t wield that power.  And in planning terms, for politicians, business, the media and just about everyone else, knowing exactly when an election will happen must be a good thing. It is also delightful not to have to wade through the acres of ill- informed election date speculation in the press!

But nothing in politics is wholly good!

The US, with its fixed terms has election campaigns that start much earlier than ours.  The temptation to “be first” to “go off early” to “get momentum going” means these get longer rather than shorter.  In the UK we are experiencing some of this already. The first Monday after the winter break (5 Jan) saw just about every party doing election launches of one sort or another.  Is this good?  Well it means people have longer to think about issues but I wonder if many aren’t bored already.

And as for that possible snap election after May 7th.  Difficult but not impossible.  Commentator Mark Pack says look at the manifestos.  So we shall.

Late to the party?

Among all the pre-election coverage of policy launches and manifestos, we’ve now had the first pre-election human drama – a defection.  Time will tell whether we’ll see more of these in the febrile atmosphere of the run up to May 7.  But as the world of football has its transfer season, we may well be into the equivalent in the world of UK politics.

The January defection, of UKIP MEP Amjad Bashir to the Conservatives, had its element of slapstick.  Did he jump or was he pushed? (UKIP would claim the latter).  Was he in fact a serial rosette changer? (Respect claim him as a former member ).  Are the Tories keeping him under metaphorical lock and key to avoid unfortunate remarks? (Blogger Guido Fawkes, in his usual inimitable style, thinks so)

Defections are not really about one-in   one-out.  Parties see these moves as primarily about publicity.  And the publicity can be immense if handled properly .  The trick is to surprise as many people as possible while manoeuvring for the best news coverage.  Former Conservative MP Emma Nicholson’s defection from the Tories to the Lib Dems is a textbook case.  The then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown and colleagues had the announcement planned with military precision (as you would expect from a former Royal Marine).  Every detail, from hand- delivered letters to Conservative office-holders in Nicholson’s Devon constituency  to the exclusive BBC TV interview, was timed to the minute.   Both Nicholson, in Secret Society, and Ashdown, in Diaries Volume 1, give inside information about the events of that December in 1995.  The announcement on  the 29th caught the usually quiet news period between Christmas and New Year thus guaranteeing even more prominent coverage.  (And political geeks will also spot the significance of that date – William Ewart Gladstone’s birthday).

Defections during actual election campaigns do happen.  1994 saw a Parliamentary by election in Newham in East London.  Candidate Alec Kellaway defected from the Lib Dems (for whom he was the official candidate) to Labour just before polling day.  He had reportedly wanted to defect dramatically from the stage at the count but was persuaded to bring the announcement forward.  Voters had the odd experience of seeing Mr Kellaway’s name on the ballot paper as a Lib Dem (as by then nominations were well and truly closed and the papers printed) while hearing that he was in fact now a Labour member.  And in 1983, National Chair of Young Social Democrats, Keith Toussaint, moved from the SDP to the Conservatives during the campaign.

Lower level political defections are surprisingly common.  At local councillor level most weeks see a story about someone “disgruntled” or “principled” changing allegiance.

But national level, and therefore politically significant, moves are both a lot less common and a lot more newsworthy.  Will we see more between now and polling day? You know I think we might.