Despite its well-drilled Momentum supporters and union backing, Labour’s fabled election machine seems to be misfiring this election. On Friday, I personally conducted two informal focus groups of millennial swing voters in London and was surprised, in what should be Labour’s strongest redoubt, that not one participant could recall a single Labour advertisement, or even what Labour’s core message was.
In Blair’s day, the Labour party enlisted the famed creative skills of advertising executive Trevor Beattie (of fcuk fame) to help get their message out. Today, judging by these focus groups, the party seems to have prioritised social media over the quality and creativity of its messaging.
Whilst the Conservatives ‘Get Brexit Done’ has received considerable traction, Labour has opted for three different core election messages this time: ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, ‘It’s Time for Real Change’, and ‘We’re on your side’
This lack of consistency seems to be reducing the potency of their campaign and is exacerbated by three other factors:
1. The message
On Facebook, Labour have published over 2,900 different ads (some of which will be almost identical) with vast numbers of campaign messages. The consequence of running so many adverts is that none of them cut through to voters. Trevor Beattie’s Labour ads, such as the one portraying William Hague in a Maggie hair-do, demonstrate how a political message can be brought to life in a simple, powerful and memorable way. Labour haven’t managed to do the same this election campaign.
Part of the reason, of course, for the excessive number of Labour adverts is the sheer number of freebies the party is giving away, such as free prescriptions, free university fees, free broadband and so on. Whilst this will appeal to some voters, it has also caused a backlash among others who see it as electoral bribery that they will have to pay for. As one woman said in the focus group: ‘I was thinking of voting Corbyn until he said he would make prescriptions free for everyone. People who can’t afford them get them free now anyway, so the last thing the NHS needs is a massive bill for those who can afford to pay.’
2. The messenger
Although Jeremy Corbyn was Labour’s biggest asset in 2017, he has proved to be the party’s biggest liability this time round. As a consequence, Corbyn has been airbrushed out of all local campaign materials north of the Watford Gap and while he still appeals to the faithful, his ability to win over swing voters is limited.
3. Tone of Voice
I believe how Labour is communicating is their biggest failure this campaign. Every one of their messages is said with a snarl. When they say they are going to spend more money on the health service it is prefaced by an attack on their class enemies: the greedy, self-serving elite who, because they hate the poor, have starved the NHS of funds. In 2017 the Labour campaign had many of the same messages, but their tone of voice was considerably more friendly. The ‘Uncle Jeremy’ mask has now slipped to reveal a pathological class warrior. And if you have something positive to say but say it negatively, the audience receives a negative message.
But if Labour’s election machine isn’t firing on all cylinders, why is it that we could still see Corbyn winning on Thursday?
The reason is that while the Labour campaign has been dire, the Lib Dems’ has been unremittingly calamitous for what should have been the party with the clearest and unashamedly Remain agenda. At the start of the campaign, a YouGov poll had, for the first time, a majority of people over 30 voting Lib Dem or Green rather than Labour. But every day since the Lib Dems have been leaking support.
It seems that the Lib Dems’ policy to revoke Article 50 without a referendum has disturbed the sensibilities of all but the most swivel-eyed Remainers. While Jo Swinson’s decision to run a presidential campaign has then put off many of the rest. On the former, the people I spoke to in the focus groups felt it would be simply unfair on Leavers who had won the first referendum if Brexit was reversed without a second vote, and the country would be divided forever. On the latter several people mentioned that she seems to be quite dictatorial. Her earrings also seemed to elicit comment.
The failure of the Lib Dem campaign does not bode well for the Tories though. The latest poll of polls shows a Conservative lead of nine per cent, with a record one in six voters still undecided. In 2017, undecided voters broke for Corbyn and he grew his share of the vote by 4 per cent, compared to the campaign’s final poll of polls. If this happens again, and these voters back Labour rather than the Lib Dems, we are in hung government territory.
Unfortunately for Labour though (but not the country) it is too late call Beattie to sharpen their attack lines. Although if they rang him, I suspect he would not return the call.
Michael Moszynski is CEO of LONDON Advertising and has run election campaigns from the UK to Zambia.