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. 

When blame’s not a game

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at SEC Newsgate and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

As the Prime Minister held a sombre press conference last night to mark the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, he might have thought back to when he stood at the Downing Street podium all the way back on 12 March last year – two weeks before the first lockdown – and delivered the stark warning that: “I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Few could have imagined at the time quite how many more families that warning would sadly become a reality for.

How the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that ‘we did all we could’ is viewed will depend entirely on existing perceptions of the government and its performance. It will variously be interpreted as a plaintive insistence that the government has worked in good faith to tackle a once-in-a-century crisis, as an admission that the government’s best was simply not good enough, or as an attempt to counter blame by insisting that nothing more could have been done by any government.

Throughout the pandemic, blame has never been too far from the surface of the political debate. Responding to the death toll, Labour said yesterday that ‘monumental mistakes’ have been made and at Prime Minister’s Questions today Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on the UK’s death toll, asking repeatedly: ‘why?’.

The list of things the government has been accused of getting wrong is a familiar one: being too slow to lockdown, slow off the mark in ensuring the provision of PPE, confused on its messaging on masks, failing to protect social care, stuttering in its initial ramp up of testing, cumbersome in establishing a test, trace and isolate system, too quick to attempt to return the economy to normality over the summer, forced to U-turn over the ill-fated exam results algorithm, too slow to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the autumn, overpromising on the easing of restrictions over Christmas, too slow to enter the current lockdown, and insisting schools return for the new term before closing them. Critics of the government, business groups, trade unions and sector bodies will all have their own to add to that list.

How and when to apportion blame has been part of the politics of the pandemic from the start, with Labour leader Keir Starmer accusing the Prime Minister of wishing away problems rather than confronting them early enough and the Prime Minister portraying Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’, wanting to score political points rather than pulling together, backing the government’s efforts and waiting until the pandemic is over before learning lessons from it.

That attempt to defer blame until the end of the pandemic makes both political and practical sense for the government while overstretched ministers, officials and public health workers are flat out dealing with both the effects of the current wave of the pandemic and the mass-roll out of the vaccines that will get us out of it.

But the often talked about public inquiry that will come when the dust settles and normal life returns will not produce a standalone cathartic moment that neatly assigns blame and allows the country to move on with one shared view of what it has collectively been through.

Public inquiries take time. They are laborious and forensic, as the ongoing Grenfell Tower and the Infected Blood Inquires – both opened in 2017 – and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – launched even earlier – have all demonstrated. Often the time-consuming, legalistic and methodical nature of inquiries causes frustration and further pain to those who want answers. The future inquiry into how Covid-19 was handled will no doubt face similar challenges.

And in any case, public inquiries are very different from public opinion, which unlike political blame is far from black and white. It is subjective, reflecting existing political views, different personal experiences, and perceptions of individual leaders. But it can also recognise different narratives as being true at the same time, such as the UK being among the worst in the world for Covid-19 deaths and among the best in the world for not just distributing but discovering the vaccines that provide an escape from the last year.

How blame is formally apportioned during any inquiry, how politicians attempt to assign or avoid it, and how the public view both will be a central part of British politics for many years as the long legacy of the pandemic remains with us.

At the heart of maintaining public confidence that lessons are learned – whoever and whatever deserves blame – will be ensuring that at the centre of it all are those families – many more even than the Prime Minister warned last March – who did go on to lose loved ones before their time.

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This piece was written for the SEC Newsgate blog.

Set Boris free

GUEST POST: Peter Bingle is Director at The Terrapin Group. Connect on LinkedIn

In these strange virtual times, this year’s online party conference has a special importance, not just for the Tory Party but also for the Prime Minister. His speech will help to define the rest of his tenure at Number 10.

I have supported Boris Johnson since his first campaign to become Mayor of London. In a world full of dullness and a body politic stuffed full with the second rate and dull, he was a real breath of fresh air. He discarded political correctness, but crucially exuded optimism and fun. 

I predicted that he would beat Ken on both occasions. It wasn’t hard to do so! Londoners loved this political maverick who made us all smile, chuckle and even laugh out loud. His record at City Hall was superb, thanks to his two great chiefs of staff – Sir Simon Milton and Sir Edward Lister. 

There was no greater supporter of Boris when he announced he was a candidate to succeed the hapless Theresa May. Here was a Tory who could inject zest and optimism into a political party which resembled a corpse. 

My only fear was some of the people advising him. I dismissed those worries, but time has shown that I was quite right to be concerned. 

In the December election, I predicted a majority of eighty and was delighted by the result. Boris could now literally change the political landscape for a generation. A politician who appealed to people from every walk of life. Once again, the Tory Party was a national political force. Our PM was a populist who understood what made normal voters tick. 

However, the problems started long before the pandemic. He chose a weak Cabinet and the Number 10 team, with a few exceptions, makes his predecessors’ team look competent. That is some achievement! The political ramifications are now all too clear. 

Firstly, Boris no longer exudes optimism and confidence. Folk are now starting to laugh at him rather than with him. His attempt to position himself as a modern day Churchill is just plain silly. 

Secondly, Boris no longer seems in control of events. He is a reactive PM who is now defined by an increasing number of U-turns. Boris doesn’t appear to have a grip on what is happening. 

Thirdly, Boris is being let down by a Number 10 team which doesn’t seem to understand the concepts of strategic communications and messaging. The Cabinet is also weak. 

Lastly, I no longer have any idea if the government has a policy agenda. The one exception concerns the increasing role of the state. There has never been such a ‘Big State’ government. This isn’t why people vote Tory …

For all of this, I still have faith in Boris. He needs to show us that he is not only in control but actually still wants to be PM. Then he can start the crucial task of rebuilding and re-energising his special rapport with the British people. 

The first stage is a ministerial cull of epic proportions. There is great talent on the back-benches, which needs to be tapped into. Not just youngsters but also former ministers and people who should have been made ministers in previous governments. 

The second stage is to have a very clear policy agenda which embraces and motivates traditional and new Tory voters. Economic competence must underpin all the government’s future actions but so too must a belief in the primacy of the individual rather than of the state. 

The final and arguably most important stage is to set Boris free. On form, this is a politician like no other. Never have people needed to be cheered up more than now. Boris is the political antidote to the gloom created by the pandemic. His advisers need to play to his strengths. 

The next six months will determine the success or otherwise of the government. We need both inspiration and optimism in equal measure. Boris remains the man to deliver both. Britain needs him. 

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This piece was written for our website.