How Comms Won and Lost the Election
Last Friday, voters woke to the shock news that Britain had elected a hung parliament after the prime minister Theresa May and her Conservatives failed to win a Commons majority. In what turned out to be a catastrophic gamble, Mrs May saw her pre-election majority wiped out, while Labour made gains of 29 seats from the last general election.
May called the election on April 18 to strengthen her position going into Brexit negotiations. Opinion polls at that time gave the Conservatives a 20 point lead over Labour, enough for a potentially triple-figure majority. May fully expected to thrash the Labour leader, who she mocked as ‘weak, unstable and nonsensical.’ But her plan backfired.
Meanwhile Corbyn and Labour exceeded expectations by taking a 40% share of the vote; the party’s best result since 2001 under Tony Blair.
As a party, the Conservatives won the most seats and the most votes. But it was a night of surprises and disappointments. So what went wrong for the Conservatives? And what went right for Labour? It all came down to communications and PR. Let’s have a look at just a few of the factors that had an impact on the result:
May sought to showcase herself as a no-nonsense, get-things-done leader in the face of a woolly, idealistic Corbyn. But the downsides of this image showed up glaringly on the campaign trail. Her endlessly repeated mantra of ‘strong and stable leadership’ grated on many, earning her the nickname ‘Maybot’, and her penchant for programmed events compared badly with Corbyn, a veteran grassroots campaigner who took every opportunity to meet the public. Essentially, May alienated some voters by presenting herself in this way.
Refusal to debate
May refused to join the BBC Election debate on May 31, saying she preferred ‘getting out and about, meeting voters and hearing directly from them.’ And while Corbyn initially said he wouldn’t take part in the debate unless May did, he cannily changed his mind, joining the other candidates on the podium, with the Conservatives represented by May’s home secretary, Amber Rudd.
Theresa May’s refusal to participate in the debate showed a lack of confidence, particularly when the campaign was built entirely around her. As a message, ‘strong and stable’ became a bit of a joke; the public wanted leadership and spark rather than bland control campaigning.
The youth vote
Although Labour didn’t win the election, Corbyn’s attempts to engage with young voters paid off. From the outset, he positioned himself as the young person’s candidate, championing popular policies such as the abolition of tuition fees, investment in social care, housing and education; a vision for society that they believed in and would benefit from.
Corbyn’s non-mainstream political message gave his campaign impetus and appealed to outsiders and the under-represented like leading artists in the underground rap and grime music scene. His online interview with rapper JME was widely shared. And backing from Stormzy and rapper Akala followed. This led to endorsements from other parts of the music world, NME and Kerrang! Magazine for example.
The Corbyn factor
Corbyn confounded his critics and won supporters with his informal, grandfatherly style. His campaign had an old-fashioned feel, one where he addressed large rallies and channelled a mass grassroots movement. Unlike the prime minister, he engaged with the media and chose to take part in the TV debates.
In the face of brutal criticism from the print media, Corbyn learned to keep his calm, realising that peevishness is seen by voters as an unattractive trait. In fact, he may well have benefited from the negative headlines in the Daily Mail and the Sun, which may have convinced wavering Labour voters to remain loyal to the party and support the underdog.
A red or blue future?
It’ll be interesting to see if Corbyn’s popularity continues to rise, and what the Conservative Party’s Theresa May will do to boost public opinion of her and her party. Of course, a lot more affected the general election outcome than the points mentioned above. But it goes to show that politics is as much about PR as it is policies.