As a PR man I know there is an inherent irony in what I am going to write. But at the end of a six week general election campaign the unanswered question is why do the two main parties remain neck and neck? Or as the Financial Times puts it: ‘the paradox for PM as polls resists recovery’. The answer, I would argue, is down to the kind of campaigns that have been run and in particular the complete and utter lack of jeopardy in them.
The past six weeks have seen manifesto launches, narcolepsy-inducing policy announcements, and God knows how many visits to crèches or primary schools. The biggest piece of political jeopardy was Ed Miliband almost stumbling off a stage, but in the end, he didn’t.
We have been high on control and consequently low on blunders and that has made for campaigns that lacked energy and emotional connection.
For over twenty years, political scientists have written about the Americanisation of British politics: the belief that voter behaviour is moving to a model that is influenced less by political party ties and more by charismatic presidential-style leaders.
But Lord Ashcroft’s polling during the campaign suggests this isn’t the case, that perceptions of Prime Ministerial qualities are not shifting votes. It’s obvious that this message hasn’t got through to Tory and Labour command, who have limited the number of spokespeople with, in the Tory case only Cameron and Osborne giving broadcast interviews and leaving others on the side-lines.
But considerations of American politics do feature in trying to figure out why the campaigns have failed to take off. From the nation that delivers two-horse elections with little distinction in policies and a concentration on personalities, we’ve inherited a campaign playbook that is overweening, uptight and managed to within an inch of its life.
Risk is managed out, replaced by a sequence of stage-managed photo calls where leaders are embalmed in a comfort blanket of slightly nutty party activists wearing party T-shirts, and carrying banners with slogans that would never come out of a human being’s mouth.
The chances of something unexpected happening are next to zero, and consequently – crucially – there is no opportunity for the leaders to show up as human beings.
The calculation is that it’s a disaster when things don’t quite go to plan, as they did for Labour in 2001 when on a single campaign day, Jack Straw was slow hand clapped at a conference, Tony Blair was verbally assaulted in the street, and John Prescott punched an egg-thrower in Rhyl.
In fact, I would argue that this calculation is the opposite of the case. Mishaps represent an opportunity for the public to really get to know the leaders in situations that haven’t been set up by a PR advance party.
Should we be surprised then that the man who makes the most impact with voters is also the one most likely to speak his mind. It defies campaign management common sense that being stuck hanging on a zip-wire, or falling into a river would boost your personal ratings, but Boris Johnson demonstrates that this is exactly what happens. The public are sympathetic to risk taking politicians – they like it, as long as the person in question is seen as essentially genuine.
You don’t have to look hard in the election campaign to see some small evidence of just that. For all Ed Miliband has been savaged for being a slightly odd bloke, his campaign has shown when you get out there and simply do stuff your approval rating improves – fewer people think he’s odd now than at the beginning (though it’s still a sizable group).
Looking at the result of our polling on the effect of the 2015 general election on the electorate’s attitudes, I’m struck by the extent to which the parties have squandered an opportunity. Far from being disengaged, the public are more interested in this election than 2010 by some margin (7 out of 10 in our polling say they are more interested this time round).
The public are also willing to listen, but half say they haven’t learnt anything new over the period of the campaign. Not only that, the negative polling (a normal feature of US campaigns), appears to have worked with 45% of the public saying they have heard things that have put them off both a party and a leader.
The inheritance from America isn’t all bad though. The TV debates, which feature prominently in America, have become highly regarded in the UK as opportunities to hear directly from the candidates. We like them precisely because they give us a chance to hear from the people – that is to say, from the fellow human beings – who want to lead us in a more risky environment. Our polling showed that 3 out of 4 people found the debates useful and 81% said the debates made them more likely to vote in the election.
All this makes the risk-averse decision to field David Cameron in only one debate, incomprehensible. Imagine Hillary Clinton picking and choosing what debate she participated in and shunning the others!
Some people will blame the intensity and ad hominem nature of media scrutiny for a new risk-aversion in campaigns, and while it’s true that a badly eaten bacon sandwich can give you chronic media indigestion, politicians could be and should be braver. If you are in politics to play safe, are you a leader? The evidence would suggest that the public think not.
So if there is any lesson from the 2015 General Election campaign, it is that playing it safe doesn’t shift votes. The public know the difference between conviction politicians (like Thatcher, Tony Benn or arguably Boris Johnson), and professional politicians who are doing jobs. Firing up the conviction in our political leaders and bringing them closer to the people who vote for them, could just make a difference in the future.