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.

Vote: Politics is about more than political parties and the ballot box

Russell Brand caused a stir in the media and amongst the political classes in recent months as he questioned the value of voting in what he sees as a corrupt political system which fails to serve the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Whilst I might have sympathy with some of the things Brand says, I disagree with him on the question of voting. The legitimacy of representative democracy, imperfect as it is, depends on as many people as possible exercising their duty at the ballot box. That’s why the recent voter registration drive to encourage people to register and vote in the forthcoming General Election was an important and much needed initiative and campaign.

But love him or loathe him, where Brand does have a point is in his insistence that politics is about more than what happens in the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’. The media’s obsession with Westminster-based politics feeds the idea that political parties and the act of voting represents the only real means of engaging politically.

Yes, voting and party politics matter very much but we need to remind ourselves that democracy, politics and the exercise of power is about more than parties and voting – it is about who we are, what we value and how we envision and work towards a good society. As Bernard Crick, the political philosopher once said: ‘Politics is an activity which must be carried on; one does not create it or decide to join in – one simply becomes more and more aware that one is involved in it as part of the human condition’.

As citizens it is up to us to ensure that the public sphere is not just dominated by elected politicians and other elites, whether they be from corporate life, celebrity life, think tanks or academia. The political agenda must be shaped by and reflect the concerns of so called ‘ordinary’ people and this calls for different forms of political agency, including protest, lobbying, and campaigning. A good example of politics in this broader sense is the work of Citizens UK who started the Living Wage campaign over ten years ago. Click here to see their 2015 Manifesto and how they are engaging thousands of people in the activity of politics.

 

 

 

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.