Conservative Home

« Peter Franklin: The benefits of real free trade in carbon | Main | Adrian Hilton: Why Number 10 is wrong to pull Ministers from the Windsor Tory Renewal Conference »

James Frayne: Where the Tory campaigning operation is succeeding, and where it's lacking

Frayne JamesJames Frayne is a communications consultant. His new book – Meet the People – on what makes campaigns work and what this can teach businesses and other public-facing organisations is being published by Harriman House.

As we approach the last two years of this Parliament, increasing attention will be paid to the relative strengths of the parties’ campaign machines. There are no settled fundamental “facts” in politics – only public perceptions of them – and that means campaigns count.

But what really makes campaigns work? What distinguishes the great campaigns from the mediocre? And what can all this tell us about the current state of British politics?

I’ve been thinking hard about these questions over the last year while researching a book on public persuasion – on what organisations need to learn from campaigns as they come face to face with public opinion online. Part of this research involved looking at recent campaign case studies, as well as interviewing some of the best campaign consultants in the UK and the US.

During this research process, competence in the same five areas kept coming up:
  1. The scientific approach. Bush’s 04 campaign created the model and Obama’s 08 and 12 campaigns took it to new levels – the scientific approach is a defining feature of the best campaigns. It combines extensive opinion research, intelligence secured directly from voters, and additional information like consumer data, to create targeted campaigns to persuade specific groups to turn out on election day. An array of metrics are used to track progress. Efforts aren’t wasted on partisans or desert areas – instead campaigns focus on those that might swing, or who can be tempted to vote that otherwise wouldn’t.
  2. Emotional messages. In the last decade, as our understanding of the brain improves, there has been an explosion of interest in the power of emotional appeals in determining voter behaviour and decision-taking. Even on issues that should invite a more objective, rational approach – like the economy – competent campaigns are using more emotional appeals around hard work, fairness, and decency.  
  3. Endorsements. High-functioning campaigns take endorsements incredibly seriously, and for good reason. People trust independent businesspeople, academics, or even just “someone like me” infinitely more than professional politicians. And endorsements are becoming more important with the collapse of trust in politicians and the massive growth of anti-politician sentiment. 
  4. Organisational design. This issue gets little attention in the media but it’s hugely important in modern politics. Campaigns can’t influence voters if they have a chaotic decision-taking structure. Parties that take the greatest steps towards the truly professional model – with politicians on the road, and the day-to-day campaign run by professionals under a Campaign Manager with visible authority – stand the best chance of success.
  5. Strategy. Operating in a chaotic and uncertain public conversation, where they must simultaneously try to influence opinion while dealing with endless attacks and competing narratives, means campaigns need to know exactly they want to achieve and how. Senior consultants know without a clear strategy to guide their action they will end up reacting to every story that comes up, in completely inconsistent ways. The public will end up having no idea of their priorities or what they stand for.

These fundamental skills are broad in their scope, but they reflect the fact that public persuasion is a mix of "pure" communications skills as well as operational skills. In other words, the quality of the message counts, but campaign messages can only be effective if they actually reach the public.  

Obvious? Some of them, maybe. But not all campaigns display equal competence in these areas, even if they know intellectually they are critical to success. With this in mind, how do the Tories and Labour currently line up on these measures?

It is hard not to conclude that the Tories have a clear overall lead. On the science side, while Labour’s Get Out The Vote operation is strong, the policy positions the Tories are choosing to amplify much more closely reflect the concerns of crucial swing voters. The language the Tories are using – particularly around fairness (but not the “global race”) – is much more emotionally appealing than Labour’s.

In addition, as we witness decision after decision, it seems clear that the Tories have a visible strategy evolving – to turn the election into a debate on who is competent to deliver wealth and fairness – while Labour seem almost wholly driven by day-to-day tactical thinking. Occasionally, their tactical calls are the right ones, but a lack of strategy means they fail to capitalise on any gains made.

Only on the measures of endorsements and organisational design can it be said that the Tories are clearly not leading, but this is primarily down to their own failings rather than Labour competence. On endorsements, while they wheel out businesspeople now and again ahead of big economic speeches, the Tories are basically nowhere – endorsements and third party campaigning just don’t run through Tory DNA and never have. And on organisational design, as ConservativeHome have repeatedly pointed out, despite the recruitment of top part-time talent like Jim Messina, they continue to resist the full professionalisation of the machine.

The ultimate judgement on the relative state of the parties’ campaigns will come on election day. However, between elections, political analysts are always looking for ways of measuring the performance of the party machines. Polls provide very useful snapshots, as does media coverage, but people should keep a very close eye on these fundamentals. They provide a useful guide to how politics is likely to develop in coming months. 


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.