To an American the UK General Election, won in convincing fashion last night by former PR man David Cameron’s Conservative Party, must seem a very curious thing.
Let’s consider uber-statistician Nate Silver, who was considered a guru after being spot on with his predictions for the last US presidential election, but whose FiveThirtyEight website got it badly wrong with its forecast for the UK version, though to be fair, so did most other analysts.
One unfamiliar thing for US observers is that there are many more than two parties in British politics, although the Tories are the nearest thing the UK has to Republicans and Labour is similar to the Democrats.
And virtually a whole country – Scotland – can vote en masse for a party – the Scottish National Party – that doesn’t exist in the rest of Britain and still find itself ending up governed by the Tories, although the power of the message sent to Westminster and the Labour Party from north of the border is clear and cannot be ignored.
A 20-year-old student can take on and defeat Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, becoming the youngest British MP since the 17th century. It was the most striking example of how the SNP story has aligned with Scots who feel Westminster has let them down, either in the form of a Tory government with which they will never align, or a Labour party that has lost touch with grass-roots issues north of the border.
A comedian who styles himself as The Pub Landlord – Al Murray – can take on the leader of a relatively new party that is cashing in on divisiveness and scaremongering around issues such as Europe and immigration – UKIP’s Nigel Farage. In the end, both lost, although Farage blamed the first-past-the-post electoral system that saw UKIP garner millions of votes but just one seat in parliament.
As our UK PRWeek colleagues pointed out, many PR pros stood for election, though most didn't achieve anything like the success of their more high-profile former colleague David Cameron.
The election turned into a disaster for the Conservatives’ former coalition partner, the Nick Clegg-led Liberal Democrats, and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. The Liberals were decimated, falling from 56 seats to a paltry 8, and Labour was crushed in its traditional Scottish heartland by the SNP and failed to improve on its performance in England against the Tories last time around. Both leaders resigned shortly after the majority of results were in, as did Farage.
The outcome of the election was clear by the time the first exit polls appeared on TV shortly after ballot boxes were closed. The Conservatives were going to be the biggest party again. The surprise was by how big a margin, with the Tories gaining a majority that gave them a mandate to govern without having to enter into a debilitating alliance with a coalition partner, as it had to after the last election.
In fact, America did play a part in this contest, with two former Obama aides facing off against each other: Jim Messina crossed the ideological divide and helped mastermind the successful Tory campaign and David Axelrod was part of Labour’s doomed efforts. Former Obama communications director Anita Dunn helped Tory leader David Cameron in the 2010 election.
In a recent interview with Politico Europe, Axelrod expressed his shock at the partisan nature of British media, characterizing newspapers such as The Sun as more powerful than Fox News. He also noted the lack of TV advertising in the British electoral process and the much shorter length of the campaign, usually 6-7 weeks, which makes it vicious, face-to-face, non-stop, and brutal.
From a communications messaging point of view, elections and politics are similar to building a brand or coproration in the business world, although the concentration on the man or woman at the top of the organizations is much more intense in politics.
Ultimately, British voters simply didn’t buy Miliband’s credibility as a potential Prime Minister and the overall Labour narrative. Ed, brother of International Rescue Committee CEO David, who he defeated in 2010 in a bitter leadership battle between the two siblings, is a genuinely nice guy who confessed to doubts about signing up for the Labour leadership and the harrowing and brutal general election process that entails.
Some believe David will now return to British politics and eventually have his own crack at bringing the Labour Party back into power – but he will have to become a Member of Parliament again before he qualifies for such a task, so nothing like that will happen soon. He needed to put some space between his close involvement in the severely discredited Tony Blair reign, and he has decamped to New York City to do so.
In this election, the English population seemed spooked by the prospect of a minority Labour government led by Ed Miliband propped up by support from the Scottish nationalists fronted by the combative Nicola Sturgeon. They turned against both Labour and UKIP to what they perceived as the safe harbor of the Conservatives.
Cameron praised both Miliband and Clegg in his victory speech, the former for his devotion to public service, the latter for his contribution over the past five years of the Tory/Liberal coalition. The Prime Minister’s tone, at least in public, was conciliatory and free of gloating – and even he will have been surprised by the scale of his victory.
Normally a victory for the Tories is considered positive for business, so we shall see how that shakes out. But the former PR man for British commercial broadcaster ITV will have to use all his communications skills to keep the newly powerful Scottish National Party happy and tread carefully over Britain’s involvement in the European Union if he is to fulfill his stated aim of establishing a form of "One Nation" conservatism that can translate across the whole of the United Kingdom.