The victories of ‘Vote Leave’ and Donald Trump can be attributed to a number of factors, but one indisputable element was that these two campaigns had much clearer, smarter branding and marketing than their opponents. The challenge now for progressive parties is to raise their game by developing sharper, more relevant messages, without the post-truth aspects (aka lies and deception).
In both the UK and the US, large sections of the electorate have been struggling – feeling overwhelmed and threatened by rapid social and economic changes. Trump and Brexit focused on repeating a few simple messages which created an emotional connection with these voters. They also succeeded in positioning themselves as the change option – a critical advantage when many voters see the status quo as not working for them.
In comparison with the more visceral themes of right wing groups, progressive parties often struggle with clear messaging that works on an emotional level. It’s the difference between ‘STOP IMMIGRATION NOW’ and “We are not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens [into the UK] as a point of principle. I don’t want that to be misinterpreted; nor do we rule it out.” (Corbyn – January 2017)
In the UK, an additional factor in the left’s ambivalence to embracing marketing skills, was the fall out from the Blair / Campbell era. Although the key points of difference were related to policies and values, much of the left’s antagonism focused on the spin doctor / focus group aspects of the Blair governments. We seem to have ended up with a situation where clear messages and a professional approach to presentation are seen as inimical to progressive values.
In this light a Corbyn lead Labour Party can be seen as the ultimate antidote to the Blair era, with an approach to communication seemingly shaped by decades of policy debates in internal party committees. There is evidence that this has been effective in motivating those who share Corbyn’s world view, as witnessed by the significant increase in membership of the Labour Party. Unfortunately it has also become apparent that this approach is a disaster in relation to the challenge of winning back the millions of voters that Labour needs to win power.
Large numbers of voters, battered by social and economic forces which have’ undermined their sense of identity, make no emotional connection with nuanced, technical policy pronouncements that are launched, corrected, reprised and then fade away. Neither has the party been successful in winning back the swing voters whose support is an essential requirement for a Labour government. One of the most damning findings of recent polls is not that voters strongly dislike Labour’s policies – more that they cannot work out what these policies are.
Blair (and Clinton) both had a high level of presentational skills but also became synonymous with a ‘triangulation’ approach to policy development – splitting the difference between left and right, on the assumption that the core vote on the left has nowhere else to go whilst middle of the road voters can be won over. As a short term electoral fix this approach was very successful, but it was Blair and Clinton’s era that witnessed the acceleration of an imbalanced economy culminating in the 2008 crash and the widespread fall in living standards since then.
The challenge for progressive parties is not to develop a superficial polish nor to move to a bland middle ground. The critical first task is to engage with the current life experience of the majority of voters, even where this leads into territory that may be uncomfortable for the left. Many of the right’s key messages were calls to return to a mythical mono-cultural past of social and economic certainties – ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Take Back Control’. In both the UK and America, progressive parties seemed surprised and dismayed to find that large numbers of voters saw these nationalistic, anti-immigration policies as the only viable answer to their economic and social anxieties.
It is too easy to attribute such attitudes just to racism or a lack of political sophistication. At a time of increasing inequality, when the 1% accumulate ever more wealth and when economic insecurity affects both middle and working class families, the more pertinent question is why parties on the left were unable to articulate a progressive way forward that connected with what would previously been a natural constituency.
The first step on this road is for the left to develop clear, left of centre policies that are focused on addressing the concerns of the majority of the electorate, as well as (not despite) the activist core. Step two is to actively engage with the branding and marketing of these policies – not just as a necessary evil – but as an essential requirement if progressive parties are to sell their message to the electorate, and to be in a position to begin constructing a society that works for the 99%.