General Election Panel: Conservatives misfire as parties move into full campaign mode

Each week, our General Election Panel of political communications and public affairs experts from across the spectrum, will pass judgement on the highlights and missteps of the campaigns as the UK marches toward polling day.

General Election Panel: Conservatives misfire as parties move into full campaign mode

A febrile political atmosphere and an electorate exhausted by the daily high drama of the Brexit question form the backdrop to this general election, the first to be held in December for nearly a century.

Shortly after parliament agreed last week to hold the contest, Twitter announced that it would ban political advertising and urged other social-media platforms to do the same.

But the main social-media battle will be fought not with paid, but earned social, as political campaigners focus on ever-smaller segments of the population with highly targeted, locally resonant messages, while hoping that one of their communications or memes 'goes viral'.

US President Donald Trump made a shocking – if by now, not surprising – intervention on Nigel Farage's LBC radio programme, in which he claimed that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would be "so bad" for the UK, while pushing for MEP and Brexit Party leader Farage and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to form a pact that would be an "unstoppable force".

It is hard to say which party leader was more damaged by the intervention, but Trump is clearly a dangerous ally.

The pact was not to be, however – and, after unsuccessfully urging Johnson to abandon his new agreement with the EU in favour of a purer form of Brexit, Farage announced on Monday that his party would field candidates across the UK.

The development kicked off the beginning of a bad week for the Conservatives, with two ministers reprimanded over highly insensitive comments about the Grenfell disaster, exposure of the doctoring of footage from an interview on Good Morning Britain with Labour's Kier Starmer, and yesterday’s resignation of the Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns, over claims he knew about a former aide's role in the "sabotage" of a rape trial. And it’s only Thursday.

Now, our expert panellists discuss the events of the last seven days:

Sir Craig Oliver, principal at Teneo and former director of comms to David Cameron

Sir Craig Oliver
Sir Craig Oliver

The battle lines are clear: The Tories want this election to be about getting Brexit done, Labour wants it to be about saving our NHS and the Lib Dems' aim is to stop Brexit. Each of them is remorseless in trying to find ways to land their points without the traditional media calling them out when they blur the lines between truth and fiction.

Let's take an example. On Tuesday, Good Morning Britain's Susanna Reid did a strong interview with Labour's Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, suggesting their policy is as clear as mud. The Conservatives released a fast-turnaround video that ended with Starmer appearing flummoxed after Reid harpooned him with a particularly tough question. It underlined their main point: a vote for Labour is a vote for more Brexit chaos.

In fact, Starmer had answered immediately. What was interesting was the succession of journalists appearing on social media calling out the disingenuous editing. Mainstream journalists had their fingers burnt in recent elections and referenda. They've finally clocked the extent to which these subterranean campaigns have been waged in recent times. Those campaigns work by tailoring messages to target millions of individual voters, according to their particular beliefs and prejudices.

Dominic Cummings famously claimed a billion of these nuanced messages had gone out in the dying days of the 2016 EU referendum campaign. The scale of it is vast – the resources allocated to call it out relatively meagre. As politicians go toe-to-toe with interviewers in TV and radio studios, the PR war that really matters is elsewhere – and the scale of it is only just beginning to be seen. Let's focus on it in the coming weeks. 

Zoe Thorogood, senior director at APCO Worldwide and former director of external relations at Conservative Campaign Headquarters

Zoe Thorogood
Zoe Thorogood

It's widely assumed that this election could be one of the most unpredictable in British history and on the first official day of the campaign that is already ringing true. Even the most pessimistic of commentators couldn't have predicted such a dismal start by the Conservative Party. Jacob Rees Mogg's appalling comments on Grenfell set the tone early on and Andrew Bridgen's disastrous attempts to repair the situation only made things worse. Then a petty row over the empty chairing of Party Chairman James Cleverly on Sky News meant that by the time Alun Cairns resigned on launch day, the media narrative had been already been set.

From a public relations perspective, the timing of all this couldn't have been worse and, with the press scrum completely distracted, it is no surprise that the key messages have made little cut-through so far. It has become clear to all in the Westminster village that no amount of slick gridding or carefully timed policy announcements will be able to stop the unprecedented political environment the country finds itself in.

The only thing likely to be cheering anyone up in CCHQ will be the confusing policy decisions coming out of the Liberal Democrat camp on referendums and the absolutely dire and lacklustre performance from Jeremy Corbyn at Labour's own launch. If his half-baked rally in Telford was supposed to inspire visions of great leadership and passion then it failed miserably. The different style of politics he promises just do not translate to reality and his team are undoubtedly going to have a real battle on their hands to appeal to anyone outside their core support base. 

Nick Williams, managing director of issues and public affairs at BCW and former adviser to Labour under Tony Blair

Nick Williams
Nick Williams

Buckle up for the most unpredictable, brutal and important general election in a lifetime – one dominated by Brexit, but also a visceral battle over fiercely opposed dogmas and philosophies.

We are only a few hours into the campaign, but already the dividing lines are clear; Brexit and 'caring' capitalism for the Conservatives, wealth imbalance and inequality for Labour. The Lib Dems – enjoying a momentum last seen a decade ago – are the party of Remain.

The Conservative campaign believes a gain of 40-70 parliamentary seats is possible. But they know there will be significant swings in constituencies up and down the country. We're going to have 650 mini general elections with local issues and local personalities playing a major role. The Conservatives could not really have had a worst start with crass comments about Grenfell Tower tragedy, accusations of fake news and doctored interviews underpinned by no proactive announcements, and then the resignation of Welsh Secretary Alan Cairns over claims he knew about a former aide's role in the "sabotage" of a rape trial.

But expect most of these to be forgotten when the PM unveils his manifesto next week and Number 10 pushes the button on an aggressive campaign centred on the NHS, law and order and immigration.

As we begin this election there are a few points worth noting. First, for Boris Johnson to remain PM, the Conservatives need a working majority. Second, the Brexit Party could have a significant impact, but only a handful of seats. Third, this will be THE social-media election. MPs are already spending their local budgets on Facebook ads. The campaign will be fought out online. It's going to be a rollercoaster.

Laura Sainsbury, chair of Women in Public Affairs and board member of Labour in the City

Laura Sainsbury
Laura Sainsbury

The opening days of this election have given me a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Once again, we have a self-assured Tory party with an untested leader facing off against a Labour party suffering in the polls. In 2017 the Tories were confident of victory, a confidence that would prove unfounded as the campaign went on. This time the feeling is more cautious – and if this week's events are anything to go by, with good reason.

For a party that has historically been so good at message discipline, it's been staggering to see quite so many missteps over the past couple of days. It is hard to believe this is the start they wanted things to get off on.

Of course message discipline isn't everything. The Liberal Democrats' commitment to their narrative appears to be almost iron-clad. Like the May-centric Tory campaign of 2017, the Lib Dems in 2019 are all about Jo Swinson. Her dedication to building a campaign around herself as the alternative to the establishment – despite having been an MP since 2005 and a coalition government minister – is impressive but also high risk, particularly if the public don't warm to her quickly.

By doubling down on her claim that she could be the next prime minister, Swinson bids to persuade people that a vote for the Lib Dems is not simply an anti-Brexit protest vote. Against a Labour Party who have finally pulled themselves together and clarified their own Brexit message, I wonder if this could be an embarrassing misstep. After all, sticking to your messages is important – but if they don't resonate with your intended audience, then it's wasted energy.

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