It’s easy to mock, but ‘strong and stable leadership’ is how you win — both now and 20 years ago
[POST-ELECTION NOTE: this was written at the start of the short election campaign, before several moments which would ultimately undermine this central message. The election perhaps therefore proved the final point below: good communications principles are necessary, but far from sufficient to win]
Theresa May has said she’ll bring ‘strong and stable leadership’ so often already in this election that Andrew Marr started their interview yesterday with a plea for her to stop. She gave it a respectful 30 seconds, and then delivered two back-to-back mentions.
Replace ‘strong and stable leadership’ with ‘long-term economic plan’ and this election has started much like the last, with a PM being endlessly mocked for repeating a single phrase.
It’s easy to understand the mocking in the media and on Twitter. If your job is to report on politics, the constant message repetition is insanity-inducing. However, repetition, and the mocking that goes with it, is what winning sounds like.
William Hague learned it the hard way. When asked why Tony Blair and New Labour blew the Conservatives away 20 years ago, and again four years later, he noted ‘He is adept at the endless repetition of an assertion about his opponents, even if the evidence supporting it is at best flimsy’.
Tim Bell apparently summarised it with, ‘if they’ve not heard it, you’ve not said it’. In short, what counts is what lands voters. Alastair Campbell in turn may have had the rule (though he’s not sure) that a story for good or ill sticks after a being in the news for 7 days running. By that measure, ‘strong and stable’ is landing with the public about now, and recent focus groups suggest that’s the case.
Contrast this with Labour’s leadership 20 years on from 1997. They have launched a series of policies that various polls suggest are individually popular, but what’s the central message? End the rigged economy? For the many not the few? Equipping you with more power? The Tories are strong against the weak, and weak against the strong? All of these are from the last week alone.
From the outside it doesn’t appear that Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby, both now and in 2015, does anything mind-bogglingly innovative. Instead he just does the basics very well. And a key communications basic is repeating your message again and again.
This is easier said than done. Getting a whole team to stick to the script when they have their pet topics or are themselves very bored of it isn’t easy. It’s harder still to keep coming up with creative ideas to bring the script to life (though it doesn’t hurt when the media and Twitter repeat it endlessly for free). To keep it up during an entire short election campaign is good, but to be very good you need to keep it up for a few years. Here the coalition government gave the world a masterclass. From their founding day to the following election nearly every question was met by a Tory or Lib Dem voice saying ‘we’re having to make this tough choice because of the financial mess Labour left behind’.
I’m not going to comment on whether that’s a fair economic assessment — in campaign terms that doesn’t matter. A weight of behavioural science research has shown that we ascribe truth to something we’ve heard frequently. Once this message had been repeated for 5 years with no repeated counter, even Labour leader Ed Miliband felt the need to get close to saying it because he knew he wouldn’t be trusted otherwise.
But if you want to be great you need to do it for a lifetime. Here Ronald Reagan was the master. He had what came to be known as ‘The Speech’. The Speech, first used in the 1960s, told the story of the person he was, the journey he’d been on and why America was great but faced a crucial choice about its future. He’d give The Speech to nearly every audience he stood in front of for decades. Speechwriters and policy advisers would come to learn that key to getting their point into a major address was weaving it into the story of The Speech. This is perhaps why he’s still today well known in a way he would have wanted: as being the president of freedom and enterprise.
Repetition of a simple message that frames the election choice isn’t remotely sufficient to win, but it’s necessary. A candidate endlessly repeats a few key soundbites, is mocked by journalists but heard by their viewers, listeners and readers and goes on to win. That’s how it panned out 20 years ago today, and on current evidence it is only Theresa May who was playing close attention.