The UK 2017 Election: A Marketer’s Perspective

thisIn the early hours of Friday morning, the result of the UK general election was clear.  Theresa May’s gamble to try to secure a landslide majority had backfired spectacularly.  Instead of the hundred seat majority the Conservative Party were seeking, the new parliament was hung.  That means that no single party could command a majority to deliver manifesto commitments.

As I write, negotiations have begun with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland on a pact which would allow a Tory minority government to cling on to power by its fingernails.  This probably will result in want is known as a confidence and supply agreement where the DUP will vote with the Conservatives on big issues such as the budget.  This is a weak situation.  Mrs May, or whoever replaces her as she is unlikely to survive as prime minister in the long-term, will have to constantly do deals to govern.  This will involve not only the DUP but will also mean avoiding backbench rebellions.  There is a significant moderate group within the Conservative Party who do not want a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU who will frustrate much of Mrs May’s increasingly hard-line agenda.  That group now has a prominent leader in Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, who, in contract to her English counterpart, had a highly successful election night.  Davidson returned 13 Scottish seats for the Conservatives; twelve more than the party had achieved in 2015.  Ruth Davidson and her loyal MPs are now the power brokers within the Conservative Party and the Scottish Tories are a far more moderate grouping than the party in England.  For instance, Davidson is adamant that the UK should remain within the European Single market post Brexit.  Ruth Davidson is also gay.  She is planning to marry her female partner later this year.  She is distinctly unnerved about her party having any kind of alliance with the DUP which is anti-gay rights.

The UK is entering a period of political uncertainty the likes of which it has not seen since the mid-1970s and the minority Labour government of Harold Wilson.  In that instance, Wilson’s pact with the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) lasted eight months.  I cannot see Mrs May remaining prime minister for that long.  She now must be seen as an interim leader.  I fully expect a Conservative leadership contest by the time of the party conference season and it is highly likely that there will be a second general election either in the Autumn or in the Spring of 2018.

So where did it all go wrong for Theresa May.  Many commentators are pointing at her election campaign which has been described as the worst of all time.  That is some claim considering Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto was described as “the longest suicide note in History”.  I believe the Conservatives, and Mrs May in particular, completely misread the will of the people, they didn’t properly analyse opinion poll data (much of which was probably wrong) and the forgot all the rules of marketing promotion.

In his book, Marketing in the Public Sector, describes three key questions that need to be answered when preparing a campaign:

  1. What do you want your audience to know?
  2. What do you want your audience to believe?
  3. What do you want your audience to do?

The first question is the setting out of the specifics of your offer.  The Tory manifesto did not do this.  It was wholly un-costed.  This immediately created cognitive dissonance amongst voters as it made Tory attacks on Labour seem to be unfounded.  Labour had produced a ‘costed’ manifesto.  You cannot complain about the financial impact of one parties manifesto if you haven’t bothered to provide any evidence as to the financial implications of your own policies.

The lack of specifics in the Tory campaign was startling.  It was a campaign wholly made up of vacuous soundbites most prominently ‘Strong and Stable’; more of which later.

Mrs May also forgot her second audience.  Not the electorate, but her party and her MPs.  She obviously doesn’t believe in internal marketing.  The most prominent example of this was her social care policy, which in reality was little more than a complicated equity release scheme.  Apparently, this policy was added to the manifesto at the last-minute.  Rather than discussing this policy with her cabinet, her chancellor and her MPs, Mrs May inserted this into the manifesto on the advice of her inner circle of advisors.  When the policy was announced, it overturned a long-standing commitment and when asked about it her MPs could provide not detail.  The policy was quickly amended, making her look anything but ‘Strong and Stable’.  Rather than sharing that rather crucial piece of information with her party, Mrs May kept it to herself.  It gave the impression that she didn’t want her audience to know.

That brings us to the second question, what do you want your audience to believe?  It was absolutely clear what Mrs May wanted her audience to believe.  She wanted them to believe she was the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, a strong unbending leader who would be able to drive through a ‘hard’ Brexit.  To this end, the election campaign hardly mentioned the words Conservative Party.  It was a presidential campaign for Mrs May.  Her name was emblazoned all over the parties battle bus.  Conservative was in very small print on its door.  Mrs May was everywhere.  Other cabinet ministers were locked out from debate.  To this day, nothing has been heard from Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond and other senior cabinet members.  This wasn’t a British election, it resembled a personality cult; and the British electorate did not like it.

The answer to the third question is obvious.  The public were to vote for Theresa May and to give her a dominant thumping majority.  I suspect that this made many voter thoroughly uneasy.  It smacked of a democratic dictatorship where political discourse and differing views were to be silenced.  It was an Orwellian, 1984 vision.  Mrs May was big brother watching on.  ‘Saboteurs’ would be crushed. Objectors were the ‘Enemies of the People’ (both headlines in the hard right Daily Mail, a newspaper which in 1938 supported Hitler and Oswald Moseley’s fascist party of Great Britain).  I suspect this vision unsettled many Tory voters of the centre right.  The British people are proud of their democracy and the Tory campaign seemed to be riding roughshod over it.  That made many voters in the centre ground abandon a Conservative Party which appeared overly authoritarian.

In his book, Philip Kotler also gives advice of effective messages.  He says:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Focus on citizen benefits
  3. Use words which create vivid messages
  4. Use words which are easy to remember
  5. Ensure the style and tone that fit the brand

The May campaign certainly applied the first criterion.  The campaign was little more than the words ‘Strong and Stable repeated Ad Nauseam.  If anything the message was too simple; this was a general election, not a campaign for washing powder.  It gave the impression that the Conservatives were keeping things secret; that there were horrors behind the curtains of number 10 which they did not want to get out.  The lack of any kind of detail and the vagueness of the party manifesto announcements spooked the electorate.  In fact there are many horrors being hidden from public view.  Take as an example the impact of Brexit.  It was leaked during the campaign that the government had prepared 60 impact assessments on the likely effects of Brexit on the UK.  Normally, such documents are published for consultation amongst politicians and affected organisations.  Not one of these impact assessments was released for scrutiny; which implies they hold adverse information of the effect Brexit will have on the rights of the electorate and running of the UK economy.

The manifesto also attacked the interests of target tory voters.  The Conservatives rely on the votes of over 50s.  It is the party of the affluent middle-aged and their parents.  A segment of the UK population which has done very well for itself over the last forty years.  The Conservatives ignored the youth vote during the election believing, incorrectly that ‘market segment’ does not vote in large numbers.  That was a bad judgement call and Labour were highly successful in motivating young people, particularly students to vote.

The seat of Canterbury was a fine example.  That seat has been Conservative since the 19th century.  However, it went to Labour.  Mrs May held the election during University term time, which meant that 40,000 students were registered to vote in the city.  En masse the voted for Labour and a safe Tory seat was lost.

Then, halfway through the election campaign Mrs May made her changes to social care.  Elderly people were to pay for care through property equity.  They wouldn’t be able to pass on more than £100,000 to their children in their will.  There was no cap on the amount they would have to pay for their care.  In addition, their winter heating allowance was to be means tested.  It was quickly pointed out that the social care policy, dubbed a death tax, was a licence for mortgage equity release mis-selling and fraud.

The ‘death tax’ was a direct attack of the Conservatives core target audience.  It went down like a bag of cold sick.  When it was rapidly altered, it destroyed any attempt to describe Mrs May and her close-knit team as ‘Strong and Stable’.  Her opponents had a wound at which to scratch.  Theresa May wasn’t ‘strong and stable’, she was ‘weak and wobbly’.

The idea that a prominent announcement, of a barely thought out policy, kept secret from prominent members of your party and which attacked the interests of your core voting constituency is idiotic and politically naïve.

Finally, we come to the fifth element of effective messaging, ensuring that the style and tone of the message fits your brand.  The Tory campaign completely ignored this factor.

The Conservatives ran a personality campaign.  Who do you like better, Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn.  The answer was that the majority of the electorate didn’t like either of these options.

If you are to run a campaign on personality rather than issues, it is best to check that your candidate has one.  Theresa May is stilted, awkward and appears unable to think on her feet.  Her campaign was a series of tightly controlled press conferences and events.  She rarely met a voter, she refused face to face debates with her opponents.  She only answered questions with carefully rehearsed soundbites.  She gave the impression of being unable to think on her feet and she seemed incapable of off the cuff humour. Her appearance on the BBC magazine programme The One Show was execrable.  She came across as a mix of Hannibal Lecter and Zelda, the puppet villain from the Gerry Anderson television series Terrahawks.

Media was full of tales of factory visits where the workers were told to leave.  Late in her campaign, in an attempt to rescue her profile she visited Smithfield Meat Market where she was met by catcalls and calls of “Vote Labour”.

Compare her campaign with that of her Scottish equivalent Ruth Davidson.  Davidson is a moderate Tory.  She is a martial arts enthusiast and a lesbian.  She is quick-witted and funny.  Ruth Davidson is a human, Theresa May is a robot.  People genuinely like Ruth Davidson even if they don’t agree with her politics.  She can relate to them where Mrs May cannot.

The decision to base the Conservative election campaign on Mrs May’s empty personality, to reduce it to a personality cult and to obfuscate policy detail was a huge error and made a weak and divided Labour party look electable.

Since the election Mrs May and her coterie of extreme Brexiteers have tried to act as if nothing has changed.  It is business as usual they say.  They are spinning faster than a laboratory centrifuge.  The result has been a further advance for Labour in the polls.  Survation, the polling company who provided the most accurate prediction of the election now has Labour leading the Conservatives by six points.

Theresa May cannot hang on to power.  The coup is coming.  The enforced resignation of her two Chiefs of Staff and their replacement by a former MP who strongly supported remain in the EU referendum is a clear sign that the moderates in the Tory party are regaining control from the right of the party.  Hard Brexit is dead.

I for one am somewhat relieved by the election outcome.  Yes, things are complex and there will be many difficulties ahead but the prospect of the most damaging form of Brexit, which would have belittled the UK as a nation and which would have meant extreme hardship for the least able in the country is much less of a possibility.  In fact, once the details of the effects of Brexit on the UK economy start to leak out; and they will; the whole rotten concept may be abandoned completely.