The British public are becoming somewhat accustomed to those early morning “I remember where I was when I first heard it” moments. We woke up to the UK leaving Europe, Trump entering the White House and the Tories just about hanging on in Westminster. An analysis of the last six weeks demonstrates how political volatility and vulnerability can take an enormous manifestation in reality. Academics, strategists and campaigners know all too well how campaigns can fall prey to the watchful eye of the public, claws of scrutiny and attack at the polling stations. The seismic wave of a different type of political sentiment that has travelled worldwide including to India, the United States and France skimmed our shores on the morning on Friday 9 June 2017.
“Theresa May failed to get the expected overwhelming majority and Corbyn, despite doing better than expected, failed to get the keys to Number 10.”
One of the hallmarks of a good leader is to be bold enough to take calculated risks. When a Prime Minister is publically unelected, inheriting a modest parliamentary majority combined with disgruntled backbenchers, has weak opposition and has to spearhead the country through Brexit, one of the most significant constitutional moves in a generation, some can empathise Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election. Despite last Thursday’s political climax, there were no real winners. Theresa May failed to get the expected overwhelming majority and Corbyn, despite doing better than expected, failed to get the keys to Number 10. With a nation no doubt yearning for a break from politics, now comes the time for reflection and examination. Mistakes can be positive if they are used as lessons and the learning process has no doubt commenced at the HQs of all the political parties. So what can political parties learn from the General Election 2017?
1. Making a single leader the focus of a campaign
The Conservative campaign theme centred around ‘Team Theresa’ and ‘Mighty May’. This initially seemed to make perfect sense. Here was a leader who had just won a Conservative leadership contest and had one of the most unpopular counterparts across the bench. With the benefit of hindsight, some may argue that by putting all the eggs in one basket and relying on ‘brand May’ to see the Conservatives to resounding electoral success comes with just as much of a risk as calling a snap election in the first instance. Contrary to some left-wing sentiments, we do not live in a republic styled presidential set up. Some believe that the Conservatives appeared to run their campaign akin to a US presidential election. In turn, it could be argued that this put a huge degree of pressure on the ‘brand May’ strategy. The scrutiny by critics towards Theresa May, particularly based on her decisions as Home Secretary and overly rehearsed responses to difficult questions were not so different to those of Secretary Clinton during her Presidential race. When campaigns put the leader rather than the party and policies as the focal point, critics will naturally overreach their observational analyse to the past, present and future record of that candidate. When leaders make mistakes during an election race, an insurance policy could come in the form of a strong manifesto. Over the campaign period, a surprising number of polls described the Conservative Party manifesto bare with figures and somewhat underwhelming when compared with the Labour Party manifesto (despite the questionable arithmetic). In the future, it is suggested that general election campaigning look to create a more proportional balance between the party leader brand, the party brand and policy. A multifaceted approach could offer a safer trail through the thorny campaign path.
2. Making a single issue the focus of a campaign
The game plan was clear. UKIP withdraw some of their candidates in key constituencies in a bid to get their supporters to vote for the Conservatives. In theory, this had the potential to work wonders in bolstering the Conservative share of the vote. However, as early as 11:45pm last Thursday, as the first few results came from the North East of England, it became clear that the theory wasn’t quite translated into practice. Whilst it was true that the Conservatives picked up some votes from UKIP, they had to share the fruits of the UKIP withdrawal with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. What went wrong? Could this have been because the Conservatives focus on a single issue was too simplistic and greater focus and attention should have been placed on domestic matters such as employment, housing and healthcare? Alternatively, did regretful Brexiteers use the General Election as a stick for the alleged misinformation that was provided to them during the lead up to the Brexit referendum? Or could it be that voters were fed up with the ‘Brexit’ conversation? Their view being that the public have made up their mind about Brexit, now just get on with it without making it yet the focus of another election nearly 12 months after the first. Whatever the reason, what is clear is that an election fight with one issue taking centre stage may have worked in the past but came with risks which materialised in this General Election.
3. Keeping up with the trends in voter interaction
Nick Clegg shot to stardom and instantly increased the chances of the Liberal Democrats positioning itself to form a coalition government in 2010 thanks to his performance on a televised debate days before the 2010 General Election. Similarly, a televised debate during the lead up to the 2017 General Election gave the British Public a flavour the coherence and strength of Amber Rudd, despite her father passing away two days before the debate. Even if some people view televised debates as lacking in substance due to the constant talking over each other by the participants, the fact remains that televised debates have formed a core part of the pre-election itinerary. The detriment caused by the Prime Minister not attending the televised debates perhaps outweighed any benefit gained through justifying the absence as wanting to focus on talking to the public rather than politicians. The media broker these debates, which in effect are an indirect form of conversation with the public and therefore, the opportunity to put up a solid fight should not be missed.
Further, it is surprising how many Labour and Conservative MPs as well as new prospective parliamentary candidates failed to have some form of social media account set up when the snap election was announced. Some argue that if it were not for social media, Donald Trump would probably not have been elected as president. 21st Century politics demands that politicians are interacting on a number of different platforms and one has to be via a social media account. Just as an increasing number of employers have asked employees to create LinkedIn accounts to promote the name and work of the company, similarly all political parties should ask their MPs and candidates to follow suit.
4.Collaboration and camaraderie energise campaigns
Whatever the truth is about the Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill partnership and the number of people involved in the Prime Minister’s decision making circle during the election campaign, what is clear is that a number of ministers and MPs felt side lined when it came to key decisions relating to the both the calling of the election and the policies that the Conservatives were going to rely on in their bid to win an increasing majority. Confidentiality is sometimes necessary in politics particularly when so much can get leaked to the media. However, it is also true that communication and dialogue is a prerequisite to empowering a team. This will allow a political party to feel a sense of energy and satisfaction when they succeed together and avoids the isolated criticism that fall on the shoulders of a party leader when matters do not go to plan. Theresa May will no doubt flourish in setting up her Government and pressing on with Brexit negotiations in the days to come, however, her work comes with the added burden of unifying the frustrated contingent of her party following last week’s results. In the future, party leaders, spin doctors and campaign strategists will want to pay close attention on how information gets disseminated internally amongst party officials and ministers. Further, political parties may seek to not only observe the public voting intention polls but also monitor the general sentiment that exists within the party during an election campaign.
5. MPs will have to work harder than ever
A final take home message from the 2017 General Election is that the concept of a “safe seat” is becoming redundant. This is possibly attributable to a change in political mood amongst previous voters, an increase in the number of people registering to vote and an increase in younger voters. Thursday’s polls showed increases in the Labour vote share from the electorate living in university towns and cities. Though it sounds like a basic point, as soon as Parliament resumes, all MPs would need to ensure that they maintain maximum visibility both in Westminster and within their constituency. As a consequence of the number of elections, the British public are more engaged in our political system than ever before. More time needs to be spent by all political parties to look at how to actively increase their membership and engage younger voters. The Prime Minister’s Snap Chat campaign advert was a step in the right direction but such engagement will need to start becoming the norm rather than the exception.
We may not have to wait five years until our next General Election which is why there is no time to waste in ensuring lessons are learnt and executed by the all political parties. However, I have a feeling there is yet plenty more surprises to come as far as our political landscape is concerned.