Avoiding a May-Day: Lessons from the General Election



Theresa May called the June 8 election confident of a landslide. She got anything but. Instead, she was left in a position where she couldn’t form a Government without the help of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (who won ten seats). She had stated that this election would validate her position on Brexit and prove that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was little more than a protest movement without popular appeal. But it has left her exposed, the Conservative party weaker in Parliament and Labour not only strengthened but Jeremy Corbyn more popular than ever.

So how did this happen and what can we as communications professionals learn from it?

Given it was the PM who called the election early, many expected her to lead the campaign from the front. Yet the Conservatives, and the PM in particular, appeared reticent to engage in the campaign fully. She refused to take part in the televised debates. Jeremy Corbyn too initially refused but changed his mind. She said she was focussing on traditional canvassing, knocking doors as she does every weekend. While useful for ordinary parliamentary candidates, the Prime Minister must play by different rules. She needs to appeal to the nation, she needs people more than ever to connect with her and not just their policies, and in living rooms and at breakfast tables, not on a few cold doorsteps.

In the few set-piece interviews she did do, she seemed distant and remote, providing answers with little substance. Repeated phrases, ‘Strong and stable’. ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ were used by the PM until they became clichéd, open to cynicism and eventually ridicule. Repetition can work well communicating a message.  But it must be used in context and with supporting content to be credible. The public do not necessarily expect leaders to answer every question but they do expect the key points to be addressed.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was a contrast to this. Her down-to-earth persona, frankness under interview and willingness to ‘roll-up her sleeves’ reached many Scots who would never have voted Tory before. Both ran campaigns where the leader not the party name was on all the posters. But the Prime Minister ran with ‘Theresa May for Britain’ – a slogan with meaning implied but not explicit. Ruth Davidson instead said ‘We said No and we meant it’. This really meant something to Scottish Unionist voters. Similarly Labour’s ‘For the Many not the Few’ tapped into the feeling many had of being left behind, ignored by the elite.

Labour also dominated the social media space, with more shares and comments than the other parties. Their campaign was positive – which is the most popular tone by far on social media. It focused on calls to action and on what Labour would do, rather than on their rivals the Tories. The election proved finally (after similar lessons in the Scots and EU referenda) that campaigns that work must be positive.

A good leader must not only consult the wider management team but also ensure they understand the audience they most need to reach. Policies like scrapping the pensions triple lock, cutting winter fuel payments and a free vote on foxhunting, were devised by her advisers, without consultation with cabinet and MPs. As such, she found out too late that they were not in fact palatable to the wider electorate, especially once they have been given a media spin.

Ironically, Mrs May understands the importance of perception. It was her that (as Party Chairman) said the Conservatives had an image problem as the ‘Nasty’ Party and she worked with David Cameron to round off some of the sharper edges, to be softer, more moderate; to recapture the centre ground.

Yet in this election campaign her primary desire has been to appear strong, and it has been her greatest weakness. She in fact ended up seeming remote whilst others appeared more caring. She proposed taking things away whilst others promised more. And she failed to provide a compelling narrative for what her flagship policy (Brexit) would offer. Her unwillingness to debate and engage were seen not as standing above the argument but evading it.

Callum Laidlaw is a Senior Consultant at CNC and was the Conservative Candidate for Falkirk in the UK General Election

Callum Laidlaw

Callum Laidlaw

More posts