They didn’t win Bury*

How to manage expectations

You might think an election result is a straightforward story: you just look at the numbers and the results are obvious.

But the numbers are only half the story. In fact, way less than half.

Take the 2007 local election results:

Looking objectively at those figures, they look simply terrible for Labour and fantastic for the Tories.

Labour lost control of 8 councils and the Tories won control of 39; overall, Labour lost 505 seats and the Tories gained 911.

However politics is not objective. And elections are not about numbers. Elections are about stories.

Who’s up, and who’s down? Tell me the surprises. Show me something you didn’t expect.

In 2007, this set of talking points was given to MPs doing the evening shift on the election night news programmes.

This is simple language. Look at how much of the messaging is focused on expectations and perceptions, rather than results.

Labour’s results — indisputably bad- are framed as: ‘better than expected’, better than ‘some of the dire predictions beforehand’, and ‘could have been worse’. (Nowhere does it say who made those expectations or predictions, only that they were terrible and thankfully beaten.)

Meanwhile the Tories- who won 900 seats and 39 councils- are considered to ‘have failed’. Why? Because the bar is set ridiculously high. The note suggests Cameron should be beating the numbers Tony Blair was getting before his 179 seat majority in 1997: a virtually impossible task.

You don’t just need the message, you need people prepared to stick to it.

Here’s Hazel Blears, then Labour Party Chair, facing down the cheshire grin of George Osborne on the BBC news on election night:

“I think you do have to look across the country. Look at Bolton, Bury, Barrow and Crewe. Just a couple of days ago David Cameron was saying they had to make gains in Bolton and Bury otherwise they won’t be breaking through in the north. I think this is a really serious issue.”

Ok, it’s ridiculous. It’s been a terrible night for Labour and here’s the Labour Party trying to make it look half-decent. No chance, right? Just look at the numbers: 500 down, 900 up. They speak for themselves. No one could possibly look at those numbers and swallow the idea that this was a good night for Labour and a bad one for the Tories, right?

Here’s the BBC analysis the next day when the dust had settled on Labour’s performance:

  • “Some had predicted a meltdown, but that worst-case scenario was averted…”
  • “He [Brown] will take some comfort from the bad-but-not-disastrous results…”

Well, that’s pretty close to our briefing note. They’re not saying it’s a terrible night for Labour, they’re saying it’s better than expected. Not disastrous. Better than worst-case scenario. So not so bad, right?

What about the Tories’ 900 seat victory?

  • The Tories “did well in the south and, while they failed to take some northern areas such as Bury, which they had hoped to seize…”
  • “It may not have been the surge many had been hoping for…”

Ok, wow. The Tories win 900 seats and 39 councils and there’s a sense in which they failed? They failed!

And what’s the proof of this failure: Bury. Oh Bury! Why is the bar for the Tories whether they win Bury? A council Labour had held for years in Manchester: the Tories don’t even need to win Bury to win a General Election. Who cares about Bury?

Because that was the story that Labour told. Again and again. Bury. Bury. They didn’t win Bury.

So this is how expectations are managed and why stories are told. Despite their terrible losses, Labour were compared favourably to their worst-case scenario. Despite their huge victory, the Tories were compared unfavourably to their wildest dreams.

Effective political parties must be good at telling stories. We follow politics like we follow soap-operas — driven by personalities and stories, not by numbers and policies.

It is a very hard task to tell a story when you are a party with hundreds of MPs, many who disagree with the leadership, each of whom wants to tell it their way. But it is possible. It is a craft. A discipline. It is the business of telling stories. And when it works, your message cuts through.

In 2007, though Labour was divided, defeated and its leader isolated, the party’s strategy and communications were clear, simple and effective. In 2016, we’ll see where we are tomorrow.

*In fact, the Conservatives became the largest group on Bury council and won overall control the following year.

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