It’s undeniable that the media had succeeded in demonising Jeremy Corbyn in the minds of many voters, over a prolonged period, well before votes were counted in last week’s General Election. But in my view Labour created its own technical problems in the way it presented itself.
The party allowed the media to interpret its plans for the economy and society as an overnight revolution, rather than framing its aspirations within a timeframe which would be seen as more realistic. The reality of what Labour would actually have done – and when – is irrelevant: once in power, they could have turned on the after-burners or worked to a safer pace as necessary. But, persuaded by combined media forces, voters feared that the economy was about to be handed over to a Mad Max-type figure.
For instance, judging by some TV vox pops, many people accepted from the MSM that a Corbyn government would bring in a very damaging 4-day week in short order. That’s not what was said. It was a much longer-term aspiration, for working people across the whole economy. But that wasn’t made sufficiently clear, sufficiently often. The media grabbed the commitment and shook the life out of it, turning it into a pledge to force workers to spend their afternoons watching daytime TV, while the NHS collapsed. The rationale wasn’t explained anywhere near often enough by the likes of John McDonnell. Just saying it once or twice was never going to do the job. If insufficient time was available to make it clear to the audience, it shouldn’t have been mentioned.
How do I know this? I worked for over forty years in planning the media side of (often major) advertising campaigns. Sophisticated advertisers know only too well the primacy of the three most critical components of a media campaign strategy: Impact, Coverage and Frequency. The impact a campaign message delivers depends on how it is conveyed in terms of noticeability – whether it’s attention-grabbing, memorable, etc.; the coverage achieved relates to how well-targeted the specific message is, to maximise exposure to as high a proportion of the target audience as possible; and the frequency of the campaign is a measure of the opportunities-to-see (OTS or OTH for opportunities-to-hear) the message.
In the case of an election campaign, impact isn’t a problem if the policies are clearly enunciated and presented with passion; high coverage is often a given, with media eager to gobble up and regurgitate every little tidbit; but effective frequency is much harder to achieve – and usually more important than the other two components.
That’s why Boris Johnson stuck to his monotonous “Get Brexit Done” line. His victory was a triumph of frequency over coverage. In my estimation, the parties were roughly even-Steven on achieving impact and coverage via broadcast and social media. Maybe Labour put a little too much faith in social media as a way of targeting their core audiences. Where possible, Johnson shunned really in-depth interviews which might divert attention away from or dilute his single-minded message. Right from the start of the “Leave” campaign with its infamous “£350m a week” message, Tory blatant untruths and weaknesses in police re-recruitment, replacement of nurses, broken promises on housing, etc. were batted away or avoided like the plague.
The opposite was the case with Labour. Their pot-shots at Tory failings often hit home; they were good on impact, with so many passionate speeches; but, beside the multi-choice Brexit stance, the sheer fragmentation and complexity of their alternative policy messaging was such that the target audience were given too much work to do. People didn’t have the time or inclination to decipher what exactly Labour was on about. Sometimes it’s best just to keep quiet. “For The Many, Not The Few” made a good start but quite soon became subsumed to daily unexplainable promised goodies. Waving the grey costings booklet about only complicated matters still further: the man on the Clapham (or Bassetlaw) omnibus was not going to write off for a copy.
The other day, Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, writing in Huff Post, talked about ” … the incontinent rush of policies which appeared to offer everything to everyone immediately, and thereby strained voter credulity as well as obscuring the party’s sense of priorities”.
Much more focus: that’s what would have won the day on the policy front. Taking the four day week as an example again, there simply wasn’t enough airspace to clarify it often enough as a longer-term aspiration. It was manna from heaven for the deliberate misinterpreters of Fleet Street. These add-ons were policies to be whispered in muted tones at Fabian Society meetings or in Facebook closed user groups. First, get into power – the great lesson taught by one Tony Blair.
A gradualist strategy wouldn’t exclude the possibility of bringing in the whole Corbyn shopping list, ultimately. But promising too much, too soon, is just a recipe for disaster. The ad. business is full of acronyms, one of its most memorable being K.I.S.S. – “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.
In the sense of keeping it simple, Labour Isn’t Working. Now where have I heard that before?
Image credit: TontBlairBasra – Patstuart – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Patstuart