The General Election Diaries: Are manifesto commitments achieving cut-through with the public?

PRWeek has partnered strategy and insight consultancy BritainThinks to take the temperature of the nation and its response to politicians' attempts to win their votes in the weeks leading up the general election.

Less is more when it comes to manifesto pledges achieving cut-through with the public, argues Deborah Mattinson
Less is more when it comes to manifesto pledges achieving cut-through with the public, argues Deborah Mattinson

So, it's week four and the manifestos are now all launched. People always say that it's the policies that matter most when they decide how to vote, but there's little actual evidence to support this.

In 2015, our undecided voters' diaries recorded their spontaneous response to events. We found that only a fifth of entries related to policy (mentions of the leaders was easily the winner). In 2017 a few policies stood out, but not necessarily those that the parties were hoping to showcase (ending the ban on foxhunting springs to mind).

As things stand, the polls seem unaffected by the policy announcements of the past few days. In general, the rule is that less is more if you want to get noticed, exemplified by the Pledge Card that helped Labour towards its landslide victory in 1997.

Now, half of voters say they have noticed nothing of the campaign, while in focus groups back in '97, at the same stage in the campaign, I found that undecided voters could recite all five Labour pledges verbatim.

By contrast, Corbyn's cornucopia of a manifesto comes across as a blur of spending. To add to Labour's problems, 'bookending' its manifesto launch with the free WiFi promise and the pledge to restore WASPI women's pension rights will ensure that these, like the Tories' standalone foxhunting policy in 2017, are more likely to cut through.

Meanwhile, the 'less is more' principle may help the Tories make the best of their somewhat slight programme: their launch mimicked New Labour's approach by publishing Johnson's personal pledges. It remains to be seen how well they land.

One thing we do know is that it is very hard to win an election if you are the party least trusted on the economy. The 1997 general election was the exception that proved the rule: Labour had narrowed, but not quite closed, the economic competency gap.

It went on to overtake the Tories, seen for so long as the natural protectors of financial discipline. And this underpinned electoral success in 2001 and 2005. However, by 2015 this advantage had disappeared again. Conducting the post-poll 'what went wrong' analysis, we found significant concerns about the cost of Labour's plans.

We know that Labour's economic policies are popular: increasing health spending by five per cent (liked by 81 per cent), raising the minimum wage (73 per cent) and taxes up for people earning more than £80k (66 per cent), but we also know that voters do not think it likely that they will be delivered.

And although Johnson struggles with a trust deficit ('deceitful' is the attribute most associated with him) the Tories, for now, are the party most trusted to run the economy. The modest programme announced on Sunday is unlikely to rock that boat. Of course, in policy terms, Brexit continues to override everything. Labour's policy is seen as fudge – even by many remainers – and Corbyn's 'neutrality' announcement will confirm this. ("Fence-sitter" is the term most often chosen to describe him.)

Meanwhile, the Tories' "get Brexit done" line is straight out of the focus groups' script. At the start of the campaign 58 per cent were concerned that the election would not resolve Brexit. But the Tories' offer may well look like the best chance of closure.

Deborah Mattinson is a former pollster for Gordon Brown and the founding partner of BritainThinks

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