General Election Panel: 'parties need a simple message that is guaranteed to stick'

The result of the general election on Friday returned Boris Johnson and his party to government with a thumping majority, while Jeremy Corbyn's Labour limped into second place having lost nearly 60 seats - the party's worst result in decades.

General Election Panel: 'parties need a simple message that is guaranteed to stick'

This makes sense when you look at a Labour campaign which, all too often, had echoes of Michael Foot's doomed bid to defeat Margaret Thatcher in 1983.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems spectacularly failed to capitalise on the Remain vote, while in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon's SNP achieved exactly that – including at the expense of Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson, who narrowly lost her own seat to the nationalists.

So, in campaigning and political communications terms, where did Labour go wrong and what did the Conservatives do right?

In the first place, the Conservatives' central message to the electorate, "Get Brexit done", repeated ad infinitum throughout the campaign, did cut through to the electorate and contributed to the gain of previously untouchable Labour heartlands.

By comparison, Labour was selling a process rather than a policy on Brexit. The effect of this lack of clarity on the issue of the moment was that the electorate punished the party in both Leave and Remain seats.

Compare this the SNP's unambiguous Remain message, alongside the promise of a demand for a second independence referendum – now surely inevitable, despite objections from Number 10.

In a sense, in this election Labour and the Conservatives ran parallel campaigns, one fighting on its Brexit promise while the other fought for greater investment in public services, nationalising infrastructure and a fairer society.

But this was also the problem with the Labour campaign; too many promises, almost none of which stuck with the electorate – which, when faced with the choice of two potential leaders they disliked, chose the one they disliked the least.

Finally, on social media, although Labour was more prolific in the content it put out and in winning the 'trending' war on Twitter, the Conservatives' output won higher engagement with the electorate, whether or not its content was deemed as trustworthy.

Now, our expert panellists discuss the result:

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

Nick Williams
Nick Williams

It's over and the lessons for parties and the comms industry are starting to be assessed.

Leadership wins time after time. As Margaret Thatcher found, you don't need to be liked for people to vote for you. Corbyn and Swinson had nothing on Johnson. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn had purposefully placed himself as a high-tax-and-spend candidate with a confused Brexit stance reinforced why people did not trust him.

Strategy rules. Without effective insights into your key audiences that allow you to create and implement an effective strategy, you are lost before you have begun. The Conservative Party and its strategists had clearly done their homework, and knew what messages would cut through. Labour and the Lib Dems failed in all of this.

Images. The use of campaign images, such as Boris knocking down a Brexit Wall, dominated the election and of course all of them were social-media-ready.

Social media. With the Conservatives spending £500,000 on social advertising in the last week of the campaign, this more personalised and targeted engagement comes down to money. We have moved to a position when money really does talk. Labour stood out on Twitter for activity and retweets, but the result yet again proved how out of step the platform is from wider society.

End of accepted norms. A PM can survive with little impact by refusing to be interviewed by Andrew Neil.

A brilliant election for Conservative strategists and leadership and total humiliation for Labour and the Lib Dems. It will take considerable changes in Opposition politics over a long time to win back support.

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

Laura Sainsbury
Laura Sainsbury

A friend told me that when he asked his dad what he was voting, the reply had been: "Conservative. We need to get Brexit done and bring the country back together – Corbyn is dangerous and this is the most important election since 1983." That's how effective the Tory strategy and messaging was. Repeating and repeating and repeating the same lines on the same topics meant that even disengaged voters were able to parrot back attack lines with ease.

With hindsight, it is now pretty obvious whose campaign did well and whose didn't. The Conservatives' strict message discipline, strategic targeting and careful management of spokesperson delivered an historic victory. Similar traits can be found in the SNP campaign, which led to their surge north of the border.

Labour, on the other hand, clearly got it wrong. The Brexit fudge – still, in my opinion, the only option they had – left them exposed on this most important of issues; but, more importantly, not enough people bought into Corbyn or Corbynism. Policy announcement after announcement may have helped keep the party in the headlines, but it failed to connect on the doorstep or alleviate wider concerns about the Labour leader.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing it looks like the party isn’t ready to recognise this. Corbyn has said he'll step aside, but Momentum aren't ready to let go of the 'project'. What does that mean? In all likelihood, further rejection. After all, campaigns can only go so far. Sometimes it's the product that needs to be changed.

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

Craig Oliver
Craig Oliver

"Get Brexit done." That was the heart, the essence, the DNA of the victorious Conservative campaign, masterminded by Lynton Crosby's protégé, Isaac Levido. Boris wouldn't have won without it – repeating it at breakfast, lunch and dinner and all points in between. Can you accurately repeat Labour's equivalent? I can't. Something about the NHS? It might be annoying for those who follow politics religiously – but the fact is, millions actively avoid politics, and parties need a simple, central message that is guaranteed to stick.

Jo Swinson is another cautionary tale of what happens if you don't – reduced to walking back her central Revoke policy in the final week of the campaign, before getting herself bogged down in a debate about what defines a woman. She will have to repent at leisure – with the viral clip of Nicola Sturgeon celebrating her downfall repeating in her head. If it wasn't for the SNP, Boris would have it all his own way. Instead, there will be a titanic struggle for the Union after their near flawless campaign.

Of course, you can't just have any old core message – it has to resonate with voters. "Get Brexit done" worked for two crucial groups – traditional "Shire Tories" and Labour Leave voters. A huge number of Labour Leave seats – the infamous "red wall" – crumbled.

As a result, the Conservative campaign has changed the electoral map for the next five years. It's such a significant majority, you could price in the next election too. But the campaign also revealed a central truth: things are volatile. And that, for the moment, is the only vague hope for Labour and the Lib Dems.

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

Zoe Thorogood
Zoe Thorogood

It was, without question, an extraordinary night and the results prove just how much the big issues really do matter. With a repetitive simplicity of message the Conservative campaign romped home to an overwhelming victory, leaving rivals out in the cold. It was little surprise that Jo Swinson lost her seat.The Liberal Democrat message was almost non-existent and lacklustre throughout the six-week campaign trail.

Despite some fairly good coverage for its manifesto launch, Labour failed to have any impact due to a complete lack of clarity on its Brexit position, and that was down to one man only: Jeremy Corbyn. His refusal to say publicly where he stands on Brexit hit the Labour vote hard in parts of the country where a Tory win would have been unthinkable just months ago. Labour's relentlessly negative campaigning was also a huge turn-off for the electorate and, despite a considerable late push on social media, without clear leadership from the top it was, ironically, 'better the devil you know' for many.

The last-minute swell of celebrity support also did Labour no favours and shows clearly that, when it comes to political opinion, the public will not be swayed by populism. Whether you like the result or not, it certainly underlines faith in the power of democracy and indicates that however many communication errors there may have been on all sides, ultimately, standing for something concrete speaks volumes.

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