The General Election Diaries: make Britain 'normal' again

The dust is settling on a result that has swept Boris Johnson into Number 10 with the biggest Tory majority since 1987, while Labour, the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party were all left licking their wounds.

The biggest plea among voters in the wake of the election is to make Britain 'normal' again, according to research by Deborah Mattinson
The biggest plea among voters in the wake of the election is to make Britain 'normal' again, according to research by Deborah Mattinson

What does the result tell communicators about the British mood? The backdrop to the election was unprecedented pessimism.

Six out of 10 felt gloomy about the country's future. Labour's response was to echo the despair; talking up austerity, neglect of the public realm, declining standards in schools and hospitals, housing and poverty. 

Its offer was a sometimes bewildering array of solutions. By contrast, the Tories' message, embodied by Boris Johnson's demeanour, was simple, repetitive and upbeat. 

In 1997, working on Labour's successful campaign, I found that, two weeks in, voters around the country could chant back the party's Pledge Card policies. The same happened in this campaign with "Get Brexit done".

The pessimism about the state of the nation was accompanied by, and partly born out of, a powerful sense of division.

Brexit did not cause this, but amplified its effect. The divide played out by age, social class, education and geography, and voters who felt pitched against friends, family, community, were now weary of conflict.

Adapting Trump's theme, we asked focus groups to fill the gap in "Make Britain – again". The words chosen were 'united', 'together' and, most often, 'normal'.

Eight out of 10 placed 'bringing the country back together' at the top of their wishlist.

Labour's offer implied continued upheaval, which was resisted even if some of the individual policies were appealing.

Johnson's promise that we could put the past two years behind us and get on with what really mattered resonated well, as did his Downing Street pledge to "let the healing begin".

At the start of the campaign many seasoned campaigners questioned whether the Tories really could penetrate the so-called "red wall" – the old coal, steel and manufacturing constituencies that extend from the Midlands up to the North.

These were voters whose Labour loyalty was deeply ingrained, yet an old Etonian Tory succeeded where a middle-class North Londoner failed.

I was reminded of focus groups in Crewe two years earlier. I asked what Labour's 'Come Dine with Me' dish would be, and was told that it used to be a pie and a pint, but was now quinoa.

The party brand was no longer a shoo-in for working-class voters and 2019 felt like Hobson's choice: "It's not about who you agree with most, but who you disagree with least," observed one.

Lord Ashcroft's post-election polling tells us that many voters took their decision-making to the wire, finally deciding how to vote in the last few days.

It also suggests that many found the decision harder than usual.

Running a large workshop of undecided voters from around the country for the BBC a week ago, we found that an increasing number were, pragmatically, willing to 'lend their vote' to Johnson as the least-worst option, without feeling that it meant they were now Tory.

All this has profound implications for communicators.

The old British tribes have broken down, replaced by new, sometimes more transactional, allegiances.

When times are hard, people choose optimism over pessimism and, understandably, simple solutions over complicated ones.

Most of all, loyalty can never be taken for granted – as Jeremy Corbyn found to his cost.

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

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