How the Conservatives’ winning communications strategy in the UK general election mixed new media techniques with traditional forms of persuasion
Storytelling and politics
The UK general election this December produced a result which was predictably unpredictable. Contrary to what all the polls were suggesting, Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party recorded an overwhelming victory, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party suffered its worst defeat since 1935. Thus it was that another nationalist-populist government, with a predilection for playing fast and loose with the truth, was returned to power, while the centrist and left-leaning parties (at least, those south of the Scottish border) were left anxiously reflecting on what had gone wrong.
Politics is made up of persuasion and policy. There are several other elements involved of course (it’s a complicated business, after all), but these two fundamentals are at the centre of it. And importantly, without the first, you don’t get access to the second. When Jeremy Corbyn claimed, in the aftermath of his defeat, that despite the outcome he’d won the argument, he was forgetting the first rule of rhetoric: winning an argument means persuading people to take your side. In a democracy, power comes from persuading enough of the right people in the right places to back your vision for the future. (Who and what counts as right in this equation depends on the particular democratic system you’re using.)
The ‘Get Brexit Done’ rallying cry is also part of a broader narrative about the people (represented in this case by Boris Johnson) versus parliament.
There has been a lot of research recently showing that people tend to vote on values and identity, and that rational persuasion has relatively little impact on voter decisions. It’s become received wisdom that elections aren’t won by facts and arguments, they’re won by engaging the emotions of the electorate. And one of the most powerful ways of tapping into people’s emotions is through storytelling. History suggests that campaigns which tell a simple, clear and coherent story are far more likely to succeed than those which overwhelm their message with policy details. Think, for example, of Obama versus McCain and Romney. Of Leave versus Remain in the Brexit referendum. Or Trump versus Hillary Clinton in 2016.
These stories are often extremely straightforward, and are based around key, motivational ideas such as action, change, and aspiration: ‘Yes we can’, ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Take back control’. They’re also personified in the (constructed) character of the leader. Even in the British electoral system, where people vote for individual candidates rather than the leaders of parties, the stories which the campaigns craft for themselves – and which the media then amplify – are mostly based around the characters and exploits of these leaders. As a counter-example, take Theresa May’s Conservatives in 2017 who lacked both a compelling story and a convincing ‘character’ to help drive that story. Her slogan, ‘Strong and Stable’, said nothing about change or inspiration, or shaping the future, and simply didn’t communicate with the electorate.
Get Brexit Done
So how does all this relate to the Conservatives’ recent communications strategy? The refrain ‘Get Brexit Done’, which operated as their core message, is itself a very simple narrative. It identifies a problem which needs decisive action in order to achieve a specific goal. As critics have pointed out, it’s also highly misleading: the 31 January deadline for the UK to officially leave the EU is just the beginning of a long and complicated negotiation process which is likely to last years. Brexit will not, by any means, be ‘done’ on that date. But this is to miss the symbolic value of the sentiment. And the way it aligns with a complex of values around political decisiveness, national identity and sovereignty.
The ‘Get Brexit Done’ rallying cry is also part of a broader narrative about the people (represented in this case by Boris Johnson) versus parliament. This is the classic narrative that underpins populist movements. The idea that the will of the people is being stymied by a self-serving and corrupt parliamentary elite, and only the populist leader, as representative of the vox populi, can liberate this will. It’s also one of the archetypal narratives we find in fiction and movies: an unfancied outsider or small band of rebels taking on an evil empire / lawless band of criminals. By drawing on this archetypal narrative in the design of their campaign, Boris Johnson is able to present himself as a Luke Skywalker or Bruce Wayne in his own Westminster-based morality tale.
Reducing their message to this familiar and emotionally-engaging narrative, and then sticking to it with rigid discipline, allowed the Conservatives to set themselves up as a force for change despite having been in power for nine years. Labour, on the other hand, seemed to forget these basic principles of communication, putting forward an approach to Brexit which may have been both pragmatic and nuanced, but which all too often came across as vague and incoherent, especially when refracted through the lens of the media.
Getting the story out
Of course, it’s not just having a powerful story. It’s also making sure this story gets heard by as many people as possible that’s important. For this you need to find ways dominate the attention economy of the modern media environment. Again, the Conservatives were far better than their rivals at this, using a mixture of quirky stunts, provocations and controversies to ensure that they were constantly being talked about on social media, and that this, in turn, was picked up by the traditional media
Many of the biggest talking points of the election were about how the parties were campaigning, rather than the message they were trying to put across. This included everything from Boris Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Neil because the format of the traditional TV interview ‘is tired and broken’; to Conservative HQ masquerading on Twitter as a fact-checking site in order to bash the Labour party. These stunts inevitably led to impassioned online debates about what is and isn’t legitimate when it comes to exploiting different types of media – but at the same time they ensured that the party at the heart of the controversy got wall to wall media coverage.
Even the supposedly ‘negative’ stories about the Conservatives didn’t undermine their main message of getting Brexit done. When Boris Johnson got into an argument with an interviewer about the photo of a four-year-old boy who’d been left waiting on the floor at Leeds General Infirmary, or when he supposedly hid in a fridge to avoid another TV interview, he was widely condemned in the press. But again, these stories dominated coverage of the election that day both online and off, pushing initiatives from the other parties into the shadows. And although media commentators themselves may have seen both stories as damaging to Johnson, they were in fact entirely consistent with the populist ‘media elite’ narrative the Conservatives were pushing.
For all the talk about social media tactics in this election then, what it has shown is the importance of tying your message to a simple and compelling story. Without focusing on this fundamental point, there’s little chance of the substance of your programme cutting through. This is something Labour and the other parties would do well to remember for next time around.