Winning elections in a pandemic

Alex Walker is Director at Mercury Public Affairs and is Leader of the Milton Keynes Conservatives Group. Follow on Twitter

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an intriguing impact on election results around the world. Some incumbents have stormed home, others have struggled, and some have lost to successful challengers. I have been lucky over the past year to have worked on a number of international campaigns and I have seen first hand how Covid has impacted the public mood in different countries and in very different ways depending on the approach of the candidates, political parties and their message. 

In March 2020, across the world, Covid-19 unsurprisingly stormed onto the list of issues that concerned voters. The fear was real, the lack of understanding of the virus was deeply unnerving and voters were worried about their health and the health of their family. Economic concerns quickly came into play and remain in the most part today, and then more recently the vaccine rollout has been a central priority for voters. 

For incumbents facing an election in such an environment, there is an endless balancing act between effective government communications and incredibly delicate campaigning. I saw this most profoundly working with the Mayor of Kyiv Vitaly Klitschko in the lead up to Ukraine’s municipal election in October 2020. Throughout the campaign, Covid was an extremely fluid issue and there was a consistent and, I’d argue, helpful tension between public health communications and campaigning. What became clear early was that while voters were forgiving of the decisions to implement restrictions, they wanted them to be articulated clearly. Moreover, they wanted to see the Mayor being busy and keeping vital services moving. We brought in daily live streamed daily briefings, we set up an economic recovery council of business leaders and ensured that the Mayor was regularly talking about protecting jobs and income. The Mayor ended up being re-elected with more than 50% of the vote. 

Back home in the local elections in May, the Conservative party benefited greatly from an impressive vaccine rollout. The party leaned into the vaccine bounce with daily updates on the number of jabs in arms and memorable social media graphics for key milestones. The media helped promote the importance of getting jabbed and thousands of people posted their little appointment cards online, essentially acting as micro influencers for the party’s central campaign message. In Milton Keynes, where I led a group of 16 Conservative councillors, we were seeing it on the doorstep, with one colleague being told by a resident: “You have 4 jabs and 2 votes from this household.” Thanks to that narrative and some good local issues, I now lead the largest group on MK Council with 24 brilliant Conservative councillors. And of course, there was success up and down the country. 

A good vaccination programme isn’t a silver bullet, as experienced by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s March elections. Israel has been held up as the world leader for vaccinations, a rollout designed, implemented and well communicated by Netanyahu’s Government. However, working with Naftali Bennet and his new party Yamina, the data was showing many other issues in play: the economy, crime and, above all else, questions over the character of Netanyahu. My colleague George Birnbaum, who first helped Bibi get elected in ‘97 and has been involved in every national election since, identified early that voters were framing the election as pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi. Naftali Bennett, along with parties from the left and right, strengthened the anti-Bibi sentiment and were able to secure enough seats to eventually form a new and historic coalition government.  

I want to finally jump over to Romania and its general election in November 2020. A country dominated by the Socialist Democratic Party (PSD) since the fall of communism. A party that has been dogged with corruption, at times resulting in tragedy as seen in the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire which saw 64 young people lose their life. A minority Liberal Government had taken over after PSD voted itself out of power in 2019. The Liberal Government had done an impressive job handling the Covid crisis, early to lockdown and build capacity into the health system. Just two months before the election they were riding high in the polls, an 8% advantage over PSD. Could it be that Covid was about to act as an accelerator and end the robust structural vote for the socialists? No. Despite a relatively good campaign from the Liberals and their strong record in government, PSD still returned the largest vote share and secured the largest number of MPs. Thankfully for the Liberals they were able to grab support from a new party USR PLUS and still formed a government. But, it did highlight Covid’s disruptive limits. 

We can be certain that Covid-19 and its impact on elections is not yet over. France’s 2022 Presidential election will be one to watch. The handling of the pandemic will define incumbents’ records whether they want it to or not. When they face their next election, they will need to decide whether they embrace it or try to define their campaign on other issues. As ever, there is no one size fits all strategy, as I have experienced over the last 18 months in which campaigns have aged me dramatically!  

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This piece was written for our website.

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.