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Who is winning the spin war?

1 Jul 2024
Read: 5 min
Who is winning the spin war?

Luke Warren, Public Affairs consultant at Lansons, examines the comms strategies employed by the major parties throughout the election campaign. Here's a hint - words really do matter.

Luke Warren
Luke Warren
Account Manager

In less than a week’s time, the British public will head to the polls to vote on who they want to be their next MP, and crucially, who they want to hold the keys to Downing Street. Whilst very little more can be done by the political parties, the messaging they have deployed has been vital in swaying (or strengthening) the minds of voters.

But what makes a successful political communication campaign?

The answer is relatively straightforward. Simple and consistent messaging that chimes with voter bases, effective spokespeople who can convey messaging authentically, and, crucially, the use of traditional and modern information-distribution channels (broadsheet newspapers being traditional, social media being more modern).

The fortunes of election campaigns can often be made, or ruined, by the communication strategies employed. Take for example the 2019 General Election: the Conservative’s slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ was incredibly potent. In effect it captured the zeitgeist of the public mood towards Brexit, and Labour failed to match the narrative, and became victims to the Conservatives’ portrayal of them.

But how does this General Election campaign compare to others when it comes to the use of communication?

In many ways, communication has become more important for the political parties than ever, but ultimately with very little influence over their wider electoral fortunes.

Unlike any other election before, parties and campaigners have more digital channels at their disposal to communicate with voters and the party faithful than ever before. TikTok, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, alongside ‘traditionals’ like Facebook, Instagram and X have all been vital for each of the parties. One party in particular has had particular success in getting cut through on social media: Reform UK. Despite spending £26,245 between 19th May and 16th July on Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), well behind Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and the Greens, Reform UK has managed to dominate in terms of organic social media page interactions, having 1,547,538 interactions in the same time period - more than the combined number of the Tories and Labour.

For traditional communication channels, the head-to-head debate remains the prized trophy for journalists.

As well as a tacit nod as to who dominate the political landscape. Unsurprisingly, it was Sunak and Starmer who clashed in three head-to-head debates, including with ITV on the 4th of June, Sky News on the 12th of June and the BBC on the 26th of June. For the host media outlet, these debates are an opportunity to promote themselves, and steer the conversations in ways they want. For leaders, it is another conduit to communicate key messaging, attack opponents and rebut any criticism pointed at them. Similar to the wider party debates, they provide an insight into the wider comms campaign strategies of each party.

For the Conservatives, their initial comms strategy focused on winning back voters who had been swayed by the Reform Party, with a narrative centred on the tagline ‘Clear Plan, Bold Action, Secure Future’. This line has been critical in framing the choice between continuing progress already made by Sunak, or risk returning to “square one” with no plan or certainty under Starmer.

Whilst this initial communication stratagem bore little fruit, various incidents - notably Sunak leaving a D-Day memorial ceremony early - had a far greater effect on capturing voters’ attention, leading to a flurry of Conservative frontbenchers, as well as the Prime Minister himself, spinning to a more defensive position, apologising for the incident rather than taking the front foot on policy announcements.

As the polling gap between Labour and the Conservatives widened, communication became more aggressive.

With the attack line that Labour would raise taxes by “£2,094” being regularly used. This included Penny Mordaunt at the BBC General Election debate on the 7th of June, and by Sunak at the ITV Leadership Debate on the 4th of June, as well as on social media. The image of the red piggy bank has become synonymous with the Conservative tax rise attack line, being used in dozens of attack ads. Labour’s manifesto launch served as a key moment for a barrage of similar attacks, all with a similar vein on taxes going up for families and households.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the Conservatives' election messaging has shifted significantly, a recalibration based not off policy offerings by themselves or Labour, but on the widely acknowledged fact that Labour would most likely win the election. Warnings of a possible ‘supermajority’ Labour Government without any effective opposition has seemed to have chimed with voters on doorsteps, being used not just by on-the-ground teams, but also by central office on social media and Cabinet members on the airwaves, including Defence Secretary Grant Shapps

The strategy is not designed as a gambit to seize victory from the jaws of defeat, but rather to minimise potential losses.

For Labour, Sir Keir has been wary about damaging his healthy polling lead over the Conservatives, having adopted a ‘Ming Vase Strategy’ over the election campaign, which has certainly been integral to Labour’s communication strategy. Narratives have been tightly confined to a few key areas, notably: change, stability, mission-driven, and the ‘first steps for change’ pledges. Divergence from these pillars has been a rare occurrence, and reassessments of the strategy has been completely out of the question.

Enthusiastic to remind voters on the internal changes the party has undergone since the Corbyn-era, Labour’s communications team, headed up by Matthew Doyle, have been sought to present the election as a binary choice: change with a changed Labour Party or continued chaos with the Conservatives. Adverts and messaging lines used by key spokespeople have premised on the concept of change, seeming to have taken notes from the 2022 Labour in Communications paper ‘Lessons from a Landslide’, which recommended “simplicity and consistency of message and style”. Given that ‘change’ has been front and centre of all communications since the 22nd of May (with a campaign launch video with the caption ‘change.’), it would seem that Labour leadership heeded this advice.

This is not to say that Labour’s communications strategy has been without its faults.

The internal strife caused by the apparent firing and rehiring of Diane Abbott as a Labour candidate saw frontbenchers breaking rank over what the party line ought to be, including by Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who gave Abbott her full backing to run as Labour candidate.

But how much influence have these communication strategies had? 

Have they had any real impact on shifting the electoral fortunes of the parties? Unlike with other major elections in recent years (bar perhaps 2019), the outcome of this election has been widely anticipated, and crucially, two factors have influenced communications far more than the narratives spun by any party; polls and events. Interestingly, other parties have laid into this, such as the Lib Dems, who have run a light-hearted, if not incredibly targeted (both geographically and issue-based) campaign in order to win as many seats as possible.

Every major pollster has pointed to Labour having a 20-point lead throughout most of the campaign. In that sense, media narratives have been largely focused on the size of Labour’s victory, rather than questioning the result itself. For the Conservatives, this has had a major influence over their narrative strategy, in part determining the shift from seeking to win back voters considering Reform UK to seeking to minimise their losses.

Secondly, events. 

There have been three major events that have dominated headlines that Labour, and the Conservatives, have simply had to weather; the Diane Abbott debacle, the D-Day memorial faux-pas, and the betting scandal ‘Gamblegate’. Such events not only stick in the minds of voters, but also mean that parties must spin to defensive and reactive media strategies, and not talk about the things they want to talk about. Out of nearly six weeks of the General Election campaign, two and a half have been dominated by the betting scandal, one week has been dominated by D-Day and another week by Diane Abbott; the window of opportunity for parties to present, inhibited, their pitches, has been narrow indeed.

But none of it really seems to have mattered... 

The media strategies, or what has driven them off-course, has borne little impact in changing the minds of the country. But forgone conclusions do have an impact on present strategies - if Labour were fighting a more uphill battle, would they have adopted a ‘Ming Vase Strategy’? If the Conservatives had not taken heed of the polls, would the messaging about a Labour ‘supermajority’ be deployed?

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