Levelling-up needs a brand

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications

“The government’s communications needed a clearer strategy and more coherent messaging” – that’s according to a new report published by the Institute for Government (IFG), which identifies 10 key lessons for the government’s strategy exactly a year after the first nationwide lockdown.  

I would go a step further and argue that this lesson should not only be applied to its “response to shocks” like global pandemics, terror events or states of emergency, but should be applied to the communication of all policy going forward – starting with the levelling-up agenda.  

The Government’s flagship levelling-up agenda isn’t a straightforward “policy” as such, nor can it be determined by any one single metric or a single piece of legislation. Instead, levelling-up can be seen as a set of institutional, fiscal and social reforms that together forge an ambition to tackle the long-term challenges that have haunted “left-behind and underperforming parts of the UK” for many decades, such as inequalities in health, income and opportunity.  

In order to communicate this agenda and for this bold ambition to be realised, the government should consider creating a brand for levelling-up. As Demos suggests, in the same way that brands were created for David Lloyd George’s ‘Old Age Pension’ and Aneurin Bevan’s ‘National Health Service’, Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda needs its very own brand.  

The politics of branding isn’t new to this Prime Minister. During his time as Mayor of London, Mr Johnson’s use of “brand Boris” was palpable; from Boris bikes to Battersea Power Station, regardless of their relative successes, his legacy in the city lives on and his impact is as visible today as it was at the time, which is far more than can be said for his successor Sadiq Khan. 

Having a clear umbrella narrative, a “brand identity” so to speak, is extremely important in determining the perceived focus of any organisation – not least, as the IFG notes, the government. This umbrella narrative helps voters place what might otherwise seem like an unconnected and often quite fragmented set of announcements under one coherent ambition, in particular one that the majority of people can support.  

Political theorists from Descartes to Daniel Kahneman have reiterated the importance of logical coherence when it pertains to voters’ general understanding of events and political announcements. The more coherent an individual perceives an action to be with their beliefs and their understanding of the world around them, the more likely they are to comprehend and ultimately support it. 

Creating a strong, consistent and clear brand for the levelling-up agenda may help the government’s chance of re-election in 2024. Just as consumers prefer to buy branded goods because they know what quality product they can expect or because they expect value for money and know they can save time choosing between other options – voters do the same.  

While there’s been some backlash since the summer, the Chancellor’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme is an obvious example of a well-branded policy that very quickly won support and widespread recognition among the public. A more equitable example for the levelling-up agenda is the NHS. What began as just a policy of free healthcare at the point of delivery is now a national institution recognised the world over because of its well-communicated values, principles and expectations. 

However it decides to do so – be it with a Rishi Sunak style signature or a unique identity and coherent narrative – the Government’s levelling-up agenda needs its very own brand.  

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This piece was written for our website. 

The message is central: government comms in a post-Covid world

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons Clerk. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Only the most loyal and optimistic Downing Street hanger-on would now argue that the Government has had ‘a good war’ when it comes to the media handling of the pandemic. The failings of the Number 10 operation and the Government Communication Service more widely have been laid painfully bare almost day by day: confusion, changing vocabulary, unclear advice and an inconsistent cast. For every unexpected star like Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy Chief Medical Officer, there has been a Priti Patel, announcing proudly that shoplifting has fallen while retail has been largely closed for business.

In any event, Number 10 has decided to respond to this series of failures, and has hit upon a structural review. The Government’s media operation will be centralised in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the daily briefings, deemed by some a success – “event TV” was one phrase I have heard – will be built upon. Most excitingly, for a media built on the cultivation of personality, there will be an “experienced broadcaster” selected to present these briefings, who will be the face of the Government to many people. It will be a political appointment, and insiders say they would like a woman to get the job.

This is obviously a potential revolution in how the government communicates. If the briefings are televised, even if only in highlights, and feature heavily as soundbites on the news of the day (and they will), the new ‘spokesperson’ will, after the Prime Minister, be probably the most recognisable person in the administration, certainly the one with the most airtime. She (let’s assume Downing Street has its wish) will be in charge of media relations, with a powerful influence over the news agenda on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but she will also have a direct line of communication with the voting public. That is a hugely powerful platform.

Critics have already dismissed this move as ‘presidential’ and an Americanised gimmick. That’s hardly a vote of confidence to look at the hapless succession of White House press secretaries in recent years – Sean Spicer? Sarah Huckabee? The scrappy-but-ineffectual incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany? – and, while handsomely paid, they have not lasted nor had much influence.

The brightest star was Anthony Scaramucci, director of communications for all of 11 days (and with whom I have worked a little). The Mooch is a different kettle of fish: voluble, outgoing, eccentric; self-made, self-assured and self-confident. He was too big, too outrageous, a beast to be kept in the Trump circus for long. Personally – I found – he is affable, courteous and charming, but too quickly he was the message and not the medium. He is now one of the president’s most avowed and entrenched opponents on the Republican side of the aisle.

Traditionalists in the UK dislike the bright clothes and snowy-white teeth of American political staffers, and dismiss them as lightweights. By their logic, as on the Potomac, so by the Thames. Maybe, maybe not. It is perfectly conceivable that the Government might find a respected and serious media figure with genuine heft: the mighty Emily Maitlis might not be ideologically simpatico but would be a formidable hire, Fiona Bruce and Victoria Derbyshire both have impressive CVs and skills, and one can imagine Sophie Raworth or Kirsty Wark ably controlling a rowdy press pack. So we should not write this off ad hominem (or ad feminam).

What should concern people is the structural change in the way the Government speaks to people. If there is a single figure with a daily communion with millions of voters, what does that say about the supposedly inviolable practice of ministers making statements in Parliament, to which they are accountable? How much more comfortable would HMG be delivering brightly wrapped nuggets of good news to a selected audience than have a member of the Cabinet slog through an hour of questions from Members of Parliament after an oral statement?

And how far does influence run both ways? Would this new spokesperson begin to be involved in the creation and shaping of policy as well as its presentation and delivery? Good PR practice says that your comms team should be engaged right from the beginning, able to contribute to a project as part of an organic whole. Is the same true for Whitehall? Would the new figure sit ion on policy-shaping meetings, advising from the outset what might and might not ‘fly’? That would be a major point of interest for Whitehall scrutineers like the excellent Institute for Government.

No-one with any experience in public relations or comms would say the Government’s media operation is flawless. It’s arguably not even very good, and some hard thinking (and new hires) are almost certainly needed. But that doesn’t make any change the right change. This idea of centralisation round a new figurehead would make me uneasy if I were a civil servant, a MP or a journalist. Be careful what you wish for.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.