When an upset happens in politics, who gets the blame, the messenger or the message itself?
This general election has been described, not inaccurately, as ‘presidential’ in nature, with a significant focus on the two main party leaders above party and policy. Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) have plastered Theresa May’s name all over its campaign slogans, with few mentions of the Conservative Party, and is pitching the election as a straight fight between her and Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister.
But is a singular focus on Party leaders the best way to communicate with the electorate?
A huge amount has happened in the past week, with some polls claiming the gap between leaders has narrowed somewhat. The Tories appear to have moved away from a strategy that focuses solely on Theresa May in light of this – though this is likely to be temporary. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has tended to leave Jeremy Corbyn off campaign literature. ComRes research illustrates the image problem the Party has in Corbyn – even among Labour’s own voters: when asked, 31% of Labour voters said that they ‘like the Labour Party but not Jeremy Corbyn’. In comparison, only 5% say of Tory voters say they ‘like the Conservative Party but not Theresa May’.
And yet, Labour’s focus on message doesn’t seem to be working particularly well either. Although a number of policies included in the Labour manifesto are proving popular with the general public, Jeremy Corbyn looks unlikely to translate this into success at the ballot box. ComRes research consistently highlights this disconnect; although Labour policies such as renationalising the railways gain support from 52% of the public, 56% say that Corbyn would be a ‘disaster’ as Prime Minister.
It would be easy to assume, then, that messenger trumps message. But it’s never that simple.
Certain perceptions relating to Conservative Party policies could hold Theresa May back. Only 32% of the public say she is best placed to look after the ‘best interests of hard working people’ and the only age group more likely to agree than disagree that Theresa May has the ‘best interests of people like me at heart’ are those aged over 65. (This perception has survived the Conservative’s recent and controversial social care policy announcement, with 35% of retirees saying that Theresa May is most likely to protect the interests of older people who are becoming more dependent on the social care system, compared to 33% for Jeremy Corbyn.)
Where a message is well-known, such as Labour’s support for the NHS, it can survive without too much support from the messenger (see figure 1, where this sits above Corbyn’s own favourability score). But where a party is entering new territory or trying to steal a portion off the incumbent, the messenger really matters. The Conservatives may be behind on looking after hard working families, but the margin has narrowed dramatically, as Theresa May has successfully co-opted some of Ed Miliband’s policies, such as a cap on energy prices.
It’s the same in business. A well-established brand message will look after itself for a while. But try and bring a new idea to market or challenge a big player and the messenger will be vital in earning the company share of voice.
Figure 1: Message versus messenger (February 2017)
The message and the messenger can never be too far apart, as Ed Miliband learned the hard way. Jon Cruddas’s review into why the Labour Party lost in 2015 found that Ed Miliband’s ‘economic empathy’ was not being heard by the electorate. Between Michael Fallon’s ‘dead cat’ tactics and forgotten portions of speeches, the Ed Miliband that voters saw was weak on the economy and weak on immigration. Voters’ attention spans tend not to comprehend policy positions on all subjects and rather focus on trust and big issues like the economy and security. On these grounds, Theresa May is streets ahead of Jeremy Corbyn.
Whatever the outcome of 8th June, the loser will face contemplation of who is to blame. Although there is no doubt a symbiotic relationship between message and messenger in electoral and business success, there is no victory without a good messenger.
Figure 2: Favourability score
Figure 3: Public opinion on big issues (February 2017)