Playing the expectation game

Marking A Tick Box

May 5th sees elections across the country.  And of course there will be election results.  But for those working in political communication, a result is not simply a number.  It is a chance to get messages across, of success, of progress, of popularity.  It’s also, for some, a chance to communicate about the strengths or otherwise of individuals.

So with a few days to go to polling day, we can expect communication teams from the major parties, and some not so major parties, to be working on expectation management.

What all parties will want is for the results in May to be seen as good for their party.  Clearly, not everyone can win every contest. So some will be keen to get journalists and commentators focusing on particular fights and paying little attention to others.

So what is happening and what will the comms people be doing?

May 5th will see people going to the polls to elect Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Members of the Welsh Assembly, Members of the Scottish Parliament, The Mayor of London, Mayors in Liverpool, Salford and Bristol, the London Assembly, Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales and local Councillors in many parts of the country.  If America has a Super Tuesday, this must be a super-extraordinary Thursday.

It could however be a confusing results picture.  With so many elections to choose from and so many different roles, political communicators will need to be canny about what matters and what doesn’t.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faces Labour. Corbyn’s team will be keen to direct attention to London, where polls repeatedly put contender Sadiq Khan in front.  Should Khan win, Labour will be hoping that this provides a message of success to drown out any coverage of failure elsewhere.  And failure, or the perception of failure could come from local government result totals and from Scotland.

Combined local government results are sometimes hard to analyse.  In 2012 Labour did well and political analysts will point out that it is the “same seats” being contested this year.  In reality, much can change at local level in four years, and some seats have seen boundary changes.  That caveat won’t stop totals being produced and a win/loss assessment being made. Labour’s challenge, should the party do badly at Councillor level, will be to pull focus back to London.  The Scottish results are already predicted to be poor for Labour so extra focus-pulling will be needed here.

In terms of personalities, expectation management spinning has been going on for some time.  Corbyn’s opponents will want to blame any poor performance on him.  Supporters will want to use a Sadiq Khan victory as evidence that the Corbyn leadership is making progress.  An example of the opponent spin was provided recently by veteran MP Frank Field.  This speech extract is about Europe, but the section at the end is a clear signal.

The Conservatives have an easier job of it.  Cameron’s spinners may need to deal with a loss in London, but uppermost in Tory minds will be the need to focus attention on failures by Labour.  The team will particularly hope for an extra “split” story with their opponents indulging in loud internal arguments. Interestingly, there is also some speculation about whether the Scottish Tories can overtake Labour.  On the face of it this seems unlikely, but any narrowing of the gap by Ruth Davidson’s team will be pounced on by spinners north and south of the border.

What Ukip does and says will be worth looking at.  Since the General Election, at which the party gained nearly four million votes, Ukip has seemed to be losing public support and attention.  Its result in the Oldham West by election was poor given the spin that the seat could be captured.  And there are signs of loss of local strength. On Merseyside for example, the party has failed to find candidates for the high profile Mayor of Liverpool position or the Police and Crime Commissioner role.  There are just a handful of Councillor candidates across Liverpool’s 30 wards.  If this failure to stand is replicated in other parts of the country, the party’s share of vote at Councillor level will be lower than previously – not a good news story for Nigel Farage. Ukip will want to direct attention to Wales, where the party is loudly contesting seats in the Assembly.  Given that Ukip had no representatives in the most recent Assembly, any victories can be spun as an advance.

And what for the Lib Dems?  Actually the Lib Dems are rather lucky this time.  The last few elections have seen an unremitting focus on seat losses and failures.  This time journalists will be looking elsewhere.  The pressure for Tim Farron is off.  The Lib Dems are highly likely to have some successes the party can point to.  The challenge will be cutting through to get those noticed.

Political junkies will be able to start making a judgement from early on Friday 6th May. By then the spinners will hope to have already established their focus.  It will be interesting to see which interpretation of Super-Extraordinary Thursday wins through.