The new 'on message' is being off message

'One Nation', The Labour Party's membership magazine, dropped on my doormat a couple of weeks back.

Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk
Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk

Ignoring the fact we had yet another exclusive interview with Jo Brand - I feel like I've got to know the woman intimately over the years, though I've never actually met her - I was at least grateful they hadn't bothered with Eddie Izzard for a change.

It was actually stuffed with some really good policy issues, written in an accessible way, such as on energy costs, the housing crisis and ambulance services. The spotlight was also positively shone on a couple of candidates, one for the Euros and one Parliamentary.

But it was also filled with the type of key messaging we've come to expect from political parties. 'One Nation', 'cost of living crisis', 'freeze that bill', and 'the case for change' were all featured.

Obviously, the magazine is aimed at the converted - existing Labour members - and our Party clearly believes these will be critical carriers and deliverers of our key messages, alongside candidates and established politicians.

But the magazine also got me thinking about the relevance of key messaging these days and whether Labour should re-think their message strategy.

We've already been told, from the very top, to intertwine 'one nation' into every policy statement we make, to build it into speeches, to continually repeat the phrase 'one nation' at every opportunity.

I'm beginning to worry we haven't moved on from the 1990s.

The New Labour messaging so effectively developed by Messrs Mandelson, Campbell and Gould, combined with everything that went with it - such as iron message discipline, being Folletted, rapid rebuttal and the use of focus groups- all added up to an extremely effective communications package.

But I'm no longer sure simply repeating a key message or phrase has the same resonance with electors that it once had.

The 'One Nation' conference speech was excellent. It was a land grab moment. It encapsulated the need for us all to pull together, in contrast to the Tories 'us and them' approach.

But please, it's not a General Election winning strapline is it? The public isn’t as accepting of such simple messaging any more. Indeed, I've come to believe the public is actively turned off by the torturous repetition of political mantras.

I don't think it's a coincidence that neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have invested effort in coming up with a strapline that is expected to have so much resonance among the electorate - I think they understand such an approach is too simple and outdated.

It needs to be less about a slogan, such as 'one nation' and much more about developing an understanding amongst the electorate that we're on their side, that we understand their worries and that we have the solutions to help them get on. This cannot be achieved through sloganeering, the communications need to be much more subtle, over a long period and, like osmosis, seeping through everyday life.

The premium currency that politicians should be looking to trade in these days is authenticity, and that means using stories and experiences to convey the message, not parroting slogans. It’s about showing character, imagination and a deeper understanding of people’s lives. When the Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps pops up on the news and tries to crowbar the phrase "for hardworking people" into every sentence no one honestly thinks he has any connection with the lives of people striving to do right for their families. It's just vacuous sloganeering.

Similar rules now apply to being 'on message'. In the 1990s it was all about political parties fitting their message into a three-minute slot on the 6 o'clock or 10 o'clock news. Any deviation from the message wasted time for the party because they'd have to spend valuable time explaining and correcting it. It wasn't in candidates or politicians interest to be 'off message'.

And, of course, pre-dodgy dossiers, before MPs’ expenses, when confidence in political leaders was greater, the public bought in to uniform messaging. But the explosion of 24 hour rolling news and the instantaneous nature of news through social media all makes being on message less acceptable. People can and do dip in and out of policy as its being formulated. Ideas are being added or criticised in fast time. Stories move on quickly, so quickly it's not even possible to keep politicians briefed on what the message should be.

While being on message still holds sway in the Labour Party I would argue that an opposite approach would be much more beneficial.

It's no coincidence that, according to recent Guardian/ICM polling, 34% of electors believe politicians don't say what they believe. The same research goes on to show 47% of electors are actually angry with politicians. And, as The Guardian pointed out, Labour voters are disproportionately cross.

Of course we'd expect candidates and politicians in the same political party to generally follow the agreed broad policies and to sign up to the vast majority of their party's manifesto, but if there was ever a need for political parties to free up their representatives to think and speak a little more independently now is the time.

It isn't a coincidence that people like Boris Johnson, Frank Field, Tom Harris or Nigel Farage have the ability to communicate more effectively with the wider public - it's because they are perceived to speak their mind, to say not what their party wants them to say, but what they think.

Obviously, it's not about candidates and politicians being eccentric and 'off the wall', but at the same time the ultimate effect of playing the old messaging game is lower turnout, a disconnect from politics and people switching off.

Those involved in politics need to speak as they find, they need to show a more emotional, common sense connection with the things that matter to voters and, yes, be a little less message-disciplined. Above all, they need to listen more to what their public are telling them and they need to realise they don't often know what's best.

If I were to give one piece of advice to those candidates in the One Nation magazine it'd be to focus less on national messages. Find out what people in your area are really concerned about. Harness your own key messages and get them across, not through standardised media, but by adapting your own channels of communication - whether it be the local newspaper's letters page, a local leaflet you've designed or your own twitter feed.

With a bespoke, more independent feel to your communications campaign you could well be in with a chance of winning.

Simon Danczuk is Rochdale's Labour MP

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