An election special Article icon

An Helen Dunne reviews a lively morning discussion

The Precise Exchange debate took place ahead of the elections on 7 May. In common with all the polling results, it focused on what a multi-party coalition Government might look like. This summary draws on some of the points made at that vibrant breakfast discussion that remain relevant, but includes new insight from several of the panellists on what the results now mean for communicators.

PRE-ELECTION DISCUSSION

IAIN ANDERSON, CHIEF CORPORATE COUNSEL, CICERO

We’re heading towards the Mayoralty elections next year, but post-Boris, I think all the candidates are going to have to nod towards the real demand that’s taking place in London. Ten years ago, 20 per cent of Londoners wanted to see greater devolution for London; now it’s 60 per cent. So this is not just a Scotland effect or a Northern Ireland effect, it’s a Westminster and wider effect too.

With Nicola Sturgeon around, is Yvette Cooper a better choice for Labour to face off against all the kinds of attributes and ideas that Nicola Sturgeon is able to deploy? Does the Labour party really want to have a woman leader? Frankly the kaleidoscope is being changed during this election by Nicola Sturgeon.

It’s exciting that political risk is right at the top of boards’ agendas right now. I’ve talked to a lot of boards in a way that I didn’t before the last election, when you talked to the Government relations teams. That’s a big change because you need to be seen to be having that conversation. But boards and business are generally really bad at sucking up to whoever is in power and then, suddenly two years before the election, going Oh God, it might be the other lot. Strategically and in terms of techniques, that just won’t be good enough anymore. You’re going to have to convince your lords and masters day by day, whether for your clients or whether you’re working in-house, to continue an ongoing conversation about every issue all the way.

VICKIE SHERIFF, GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, DIAGEO

There’s still a great appetite for strong leaders. And Nicola Sturgeon is that strong leader. She’s really appealing, particularly to women. During the last TV debate, one of the most Googled questions was How do I vote for the SNP? There is a gap for a strong woman actually as a leader, which unfortunately the other parties are not sating.

At the end of the day, political campaigning is about compromise. You have to nudge people into the right direction, but ultimately success has got to be getting what you want.

We’re about to come into a Government that will probably want to avoid going into Parliament with controversial bills, and we may see a new route to avoiding legislation and regulation – that’s always good for business – and trying to do things by different ways, that don’t involve going to Parliament and having difficult votes.

GUTO HARRI, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS AND CORPORATE AFFAIRS, NEWS UK

At the 2005 election, the failure of the profession I was in, political journalism, and the Lobby in particular, was that the Lib Dems were this amazingly best-kept secret. There was this guy called Nick Clegg. Everybody had countless meetings in newspaper offices. Even the BBC said Nobody cares about the Lib Dems. And the great unwashed British public saw Nick Clegg for themselves and thought Wow, he’s pretty cool.

 And the star of this campaign and the sensation of this election is Nicola Sturgeon. I heard a Conservative woman who used to work for Government, say If we could get her to spout Conservative views, we’d be back in the 80s. I’ve heard posh girls in West London ask Why can’t we vote for her? She [was not even] a candidate in the General Election.

What I think happened in London is that Boris [Johnson] cracked a formula for a modern, compassionate, cosmopolitan, contemporary Conservatism which has eluded the party. He has a team of people, or certainly let’s talk about the team when I was there – there were wonderful women, there was a turban-wearing Sikh, there was a Muslim woman from the north of England. There was a cross-section of people. There was a cross-section of views from advocating an amnesty on illegal immigrants to pushing up the minimum wage. And that’s why mid-term, mid-recession, amid the aftermath of an omnishambles budget, in a left-leaning city, Boris managed to get re-elected.

It wasn’t just because he’s got a big personality and the gift of the gab, it’s because there was something there to attract people from other parties. The lesson to all parties now is to try to pick leaders, not just for yourselves, but for the rest of the country as well.

MARK PACK, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, BLUE RUBICON

The maths in the Lords is that you need about 250 votes on the big issues to be able to get your stuff through reliably. Both Labour and the Tories have slightly over 200 peers; some of them are quite old or quite ill et cetera, so neither of them on their own are anywhere near having a working majority.

One of the reasons the [past] Government has been so stable is not just Tories plus Lib Dems in the Commons having a comfortable majority, it was also Tories plus Lib Dems in the Lords having a comfortable majority. [In the last Parliament] a lot of Liberal Democrats repeatedly voted for things because they were part of an overall Coalition package. There’s no reason at all for those Liberal Democrat peers to do that. There’s no overall deal for them to stick with. The lesson for public affairs teams, both in-house and on the agency side, is that the House of Lords is likely to be much more important over the next few years.

The House of Lords has the power to reject legislation but then there’s the Parliament Act which allows it to be overridden. You can only kick in the Parliament Act to force something through that the Lords has defeated. Slowing down and delaying legislation, all the different ways in which you can filibuster stuff, that’s part of the reason why Lords reform wasn’t pushed through in this Parliament, but there’s a whole world of pain or excitement, depending on your view about political Punch and Judy-type games, but there’s a whole world of different ways of influencing outcomes that is completely new territory.

If we see electoral reform introduced for local government in England, and quite possibly for Wales as well, we will see a much wider range of individual protest issue candidates getting elected as councillors. We’ll see a much wider range of smaller party councillors and so on, who will have views on planning developments, wind farms, et cetera. That could have a very big impact on a lot of the work that a lot of us do.

NICK WILLIAMS, SENIOR PARTNER, FLEISHMAN HILLARD

We have not had a small majority Government since John Major. I think this is going to be most significant for communicators and public affairs professionals. To actually try to change or influence policy with a small majority, all you need to do is go and engage with Government, is engage with backbenchers – I don’t want to sound too cynical, but if you get backbenchers’ support, those backbenchers can then go to the ministers to persuade that minister to change the policy. Therefore, we’re going to have a lot of changes of policy. We’re going to have a lot of examples of Government deciding not to bring bills or policies forward. And we have not seen this for 20 years. That’s going to be one of the major characteristics of a new parliament.

Absolutely all public affairs professionals have engaged with Whips and politicians as political champions on particular issues, but to get much wider support, engaging with and developing relationships with backbenchers is going to be one of the central issues going forward.

 

POST-ELECTION DISCUSSION

IAIN ANDERSON, CHIEF CORPORATE COUNSEL, CICERO

Group think is never a good idea. Yet that is just what the pollsters, commentariat and the entire communications sector got caught up with during the longest election campaign I can remember. Endless headlines suggesting the polls were too close to call. The polls may have been but the result of #GE2015 was not. n the end, a seven point polling lead for the Conservatives and a majority for David Cameron which seemed so obvious in September 2010 when Ed Miliband was elected – just – as Labour leader on the back of the unions block votes. No one thought Miliband had a chance. Despite narrowing the polling gap on leadership during the campaign – he clearly didn’t.

So what are the lessons for communicators?

Firstly, trust old fashioned real political instinct. We saw that in September 2010 around Miliband – I’ve not seen much of it in this campaign. Make sure you have real political instinct around you. People who see beyond the bubble.

Secondly, our job as communicators is to reach beyond the pollsters and London-centric digital chatter. The Financial Times’ Jurek Martin correctly points to the need for ‘good old fashioned shoe leather’ to get out on the ground and decipher battles in key seats.

Finally both Labour and Tory campaigns sought advice from the Obama comms machine. Labour got David Axelrod who focused on the high level narrative and those big messages. But it was Jim Messina’s BIG data that did the job for the Conservatives. A deep understanding of voter intentions in key seats that delivered micro targeted messages pitched spot on. I think Messina deserves a bonus whereas Labour might want its money back. Messina looked in exactly the right place. All the noise of the national campaign – which the commentariat swallowed whole – was that the Tory campaign was not working. Night after night the broadcasters bought the Labour line. I walked past the HQ of Maurice and Charles Saatchi the week after the election. Those old pros. They were playing the Tory election broadcasts they made on a big screen and showcasing their ads in their atrium. You would – wouldn’t you?

MARK PACK, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, BLUE RUBICON

Think life is simpler? Think again.

Phew, we’re back to a single party, majority Government. Life is going to be easier for communications professionals now, isn’t it?

Wrong, it won’t be.

It won’t be simpler for three reasons. First, small majority Governments are vulnerable to small rebellions. Any backbench MP and a few mates can dream of leading a successful rebellion in the way only very few can only very rarely do when there is a large majority. What’s more, although David Cameron’s status is currently boosted by his surprise victory, his record as a manager of backbench dissent is spotty and the party he leads is about to divide into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps in the promised European referendum. The omens for party unity are not promising.

Second, as the years roll on, MPs have been getting more rebellious. The last Parliament was the most rebellious since 1945. John Major’s time may be remembered as beset by backbench rebellions, but backbenchers have become far more rebellious since.

There are many theories about the cause of this long-term trend, but whatever factor is most important, backbench Conservative MPs can see how rebelling often leads to more local popularity – and isn’t a career stopper to joining Government either. Rebellions are becoming the new normal.

Third, the position in Commons votes for the Government seems positively pleasurable compared with the House of Lords. The previous coalition had a functioning majority in the Upper House, but the new Conservative-only

Government finds itself in a small minority.

Of the 779 peers, just 224 take the Conservative whip. The Parliament Acts and Salisbury Convention preclude the Lords from blocking major Government initiatives, but that leaves plenty of scope for the Lords to secure changes in detail, especially when backed up by some rebellious MPs down the corridor.

So what does this mean for corporate communications? Find out who the influential peers are on the subjects that matter to you – and get to know the backbenchers who may be willing to rebel. Your list of stakeholders needs to extend far and wide beyond ministers, their staff and their shadows.

NICK WILLIAMS, SENIOR PARTNER, FLEISHMAN HILLARD

The May 2015 General Election has been historic – not just for the scale of David Cameron’s comeback, or the speed of the SNP’s rise, but for the catalogue of easy assumptions and false conclusions made by media and polling industries.

They were too busy thinking about the makeup of the next Government to see what now appears more obvious. A tightly-run, consistent – and apparently boring – Conservative campaign delivered the Party’s first majority Government since 1992. The more positively received Labour campaign ended in election ruin.

The Conservatives had done their homework, borrowing not just from the Blairite bible – Philip Gould’s Unfinished Revolution – but also from the discipline of Margaret Thatcher’s election successors. Stick to the script. Push targeted messages consistently and relentlessly using every available channel. As Alastair Campbell says, it’s only when you’re blue in the face that you can assume the message is beginning to get through.

Most Conservatives stayed loyal to Lynton Crosby (and George Osborne’s) campaign management and core script on the economy – more jobs, a lower deficit, let us finish the job. They also played to voters’ fears: the dangers of Ed Miliband and the real possibility that his Government would be propped up by the SNP. Miliband’s claim that he would do no deal with them was too little, too late and met with universal scepticism. Scotland became a double whammy for Labour – wiping out 40 Labour seats and a stick for the Tories to beat them with in England.

Some talk of a social media ‘digital bubble’ that prevented Labour from reaching a wider audience – an ‘echo chamber’ in which political elites do nothing more than talk amongst themselves. As an increasing number receive their news from Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed and the rest, it will be interesting to see how parties adjust their leverage of it in the future.

In comparison, the newspapers’ eve-of-poll declarations of allegiance seemed like a curious relic. There were some interesting signals of a wider shift, with The Independent and stable-mate The Evening Standard both coming out for the Conservatives. Any accusations of hypocrisy at The Sun for backing the Conservatives south of the border and the SNP in Scotland could be easily explained as an aversion to Labour at any costs.

Trying to cut through the noise tested everyone in this election. No-one called it right. As pollsters and the losing parties begin their post-mortems – how both failed in their two-way communications with the electorate – spare a thought for those on the winning side who also didn’t get the memo. Like Desmond Swayne MP, who turned up at the Department for International Development (DFID) for his first day back as a Minister – only to find he wasn’t a Minister any more. He tweeted on Monday [after the election] No calls. Arrived DFID: Pass didn’t work; All my stuff packed in boxes. The End?

The first Conservative Government since 1992 should enjoy its moment. With a slim majority and a list of highly controversial issues to address, including the Conservatives’ Achilles’ heel of Europe, a new era of communicating with politicians is now beginning. To keep up with the change this will bring, businesses wishing to engage in this new political environment will need to overhaul their own approach and tactics. If they don’t, they could end up as another Desmond Swayne.