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. 

Reaction to #Budget2021

“Even by the standards of Brown, Darling, Osborne and Hammond many of the details in this Budget had been leaked in advance, prompting the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways & Means to issue a joint statement reprimanding the Chancellor. In addition, you must have been hiding under a rock not to have seen the six minute Twitter video (of Netflix quality) plus all the Sunak-branded graphics. What followed was another first: a press conference on the Budget itself. Make no mistake, this was about selling Brand Rishi and shaping opinion before the papers had their say. Judging by the editorials – not the front pages – and the immediate polling, he did his job. This populist government is playing the long game.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Founder & Director at do Different.

This Conservative government isn’t leaving office for many years to come. Really pleased to see £19 million announced to tackle domestic abuse in England and Wales, with funding for a network of ‘Respite Rooms’ to support homeless women and a programme to prevent re-offending. It’s an issue that is close to my heart and affects so many. All too often it is hidden and not reported.”

Aisha Cuthbert, Head of Communications at One Housing

“Slick, well-managed Budget from the Chancellor. I’m excited by the prospect of a rapid recovery but let’s hope interest rates don’t rise in the meantime. Onwards and upwards!”

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications

“The impact of Covid has blown away the dogma of Tory fiscal policy. This is a Chancellor acting and redefining not only the fiscal landscape but the political landscape with his ‘right thing to do’ approach to the economy.”

Kulveer Ranger, Global Head of Strategy & Communications (Financial Services & Insurance) at Atos

“A skilful Budget making the best of the terrible hand the Covid crisis has dealt him. This was the first Instagram Budget.”

Lionel Zetter, Patron of Conservatives in Communications

“The Chancellor’s decision to write into the Budget lead-in times for changes in corporation tax was a canny political move as it gives business time to bake in the adjustments and it gives him the opportunity to defer those changes to much fanfare later down the line, if the economic situation allows.”

Naomi Harris, Director at WA Communications

“A perfect combination of politically astute, of-the-moment statements and fiscally flexible future policies. But scratch below the surface and the Chancellor has outlined a titanic shift in Conservative policy towards a higher tax, bigger borrowing, expanded state. This shift must now be reconciled with the Party and decades of conservative economic policy making thus far. Sunak’s second Budget is one he’ll answer for years to come.”

Poppy Trowbridge, Strategy and board advisory

Britishness is normal. Unionists should say so

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

Westminster always wakes up late when it comes to the Union. The alarm is ringing on a constitutional nightmare if the SNP win a majority at next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

In 2014, it took a surprising 51-49 poll in favour of Yes just before the independence referendum to stop it sleepwalking into the break-up of the United Kingdom. Since then, Westminster has hit the snooze button time and time again.

In 2015, Scotland sent 56 separatist MPs to Westminster. Unionists sent three. In 2016, the two nations most comfortable in the Union – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU and the two most restive – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted to remain.

Between 2017 and 2019, the UK government allowed itself to be propped up by the DUP, causing lasting distrust among nationalist and unaligned communities in Northern Ireland. And so in 2020 Britain left the EU with a deal that created a border in the Irish Sea, completing the full house by alienating unionists in Northern Ireland too.

But, with nine months to go before the election in Scotland, Westminster has finally wiped the sleep from its eyes. Just as well, because it will catapult the Union back to the fore of British politics.

The fightback starts with ministerial visits and lots of them. Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have all been north of the border in recent weeks. The SNP insists that it welcomes the sight of more UK ministers in Scotland, arguing that it pushes wavering voters into the Yes column.

The government must call their bluff. The SNP’s greatest strategic achievement has been using devolution to cast Scotland as inherently separate to the rest of the UK, making independence not just a logical step but crucially a less daunting prospect for uncertain No voters.

While Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are pro-devolution, the SNP are not. Devolution has always been a stepping stone towards independence.

The Scottish government has projected itself as autonomous, developing its own foreign policy through ministerial visits to Brussels, cutting across reserved responsibilities and cultivating its own relationships with allies. For too long UK-wide institutions have played into that narrative: politicians, the civil service and the media.

If Westminster is serious about ensuring the United Kingdom is a coherent, relevant and tangible concept for Scottish voters it must grasp the scale of the challenge ahead of it and change the way it talks about the Union.

Ministers with remits spanning the UK have been too reluctant to project themselves equally across all four nations. The rest have outsourced issues with the “devolved nations” to the overstretched Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices. If ministers are to suddenly rediscover their interest in each nation, they need not just to normalise their visits but to normalise the way they talk about the UK. Clunky, transactional rhetoric about the value of the “precious Union” should be junked for matter-of-fact language that normalises Britishness, with the litmus test that if a minister would not say it in Dudley, they shouldn’t say it in Dundee.

The civil service in London has also been too timid about treading on toes, prioritising good working relationships with colleagues in Cardiff and Edinburgh above the central policy objective of preserving the Union, something our impartial civil service should never be indifferent about. Our cultural institutions have become balkanised, shunting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish stories to the regional editions while leading UK-wide bulletins with English-only stories that mean little to voters in the rest of the UK.

Opportunities to counter the “otherness” of Westminster are missed by UK politicians, too. Of the dozens of new peers announced this year, only Ruth Davidson and Nigel Dodds were genuine unionist big hitters. No peerage for Carwyn Jones, who spent nearly ten years as first minister of Wales, or concern over Lord Darling’s retirement.

The United Kingdom has almost unrivalled cultural, political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent the disintegration of its own state. It is time it woke-up to the value of those tools. Nationalists won’t be shy about using their own.

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This piece was written for The Times.

Social housing must be part of building plans to help boost the economy

Aisha Vance-Cuthbert is Co-Director of Conservatives in Communications and Head of Communications at a large housing association

This morning, in Dudley, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil his taskforce ‘Project Speed’ – chaired by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – aimed at accelerating building and infrastructure projects to get the UK economy moving again as we slowly emerge from lockdown.

This move is welcomed by the construction industry, and those who are both directly and indirectly employed by the sector. However, what we need – in addition to schools, infrastructure and market sale / rent homes – are new social homes for the millions of people who are currently in expensive, temporary and often poor-quality accommodation.

The Government has already signalled that it understands and wants to solve the housing and homelessness crisis, which go hand-in-hand. For example, only last week, the Government announced an extra £105 million in funding to help keep rough sleepers off the streets.

The trouble is, as noble as this sounds, most councils have depleted the cash because of the lack of available social housing. For the most part, the only available option is to place people in expensive nightly-paid accommodation, hotels or bed and breakfasts. And this is exactly why the Government must invest in high quality social homes – to help tackle rough sleeping, solve the housing crisis and save the taxpayer millions.

There’s also a ‘levelling up’ argument. After the general election, I wrote an article for The Times Red Box on why building more social housing would reward millions of voters along the Red Wall. The Conservatives ‘borrowed’ millions of votes from Labour, giving them a significant, working majority.

Specifically, I highlighted a YouGov poll of undecided voters carried out on behalf of the National Housing Federation. It found that 80% of ‘Labour Leavers’ worry about their housing costs. It also found that housing matters more to ‘Labour Leavers’ than crime. In fact, they signalled that housing is the fourth most important issue after Brexit, the NHS and immigration.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to re-boot the economy; creating local jobs and supporting our public services. But, I hope that it will also include building more affordable homes. Building homes – of all tenures – will help kick-start the economy while, at the same time, protecting our public finances.

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This piece was written for our website.

We’re optimistic about the future, but the MSM must up its game

PRESS RELEASE – IMMEDIATE DISTRIBUTION

A survey conducted by Conservatives in Communications (CiC), the independent and informal industry network for over 435 professionals, reveals that its supporters are optimistic about the future of the sector (7.24 out of 10), with 99% in employment. The positive findings come as the Government looks to ease lockdown measures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This in spite of 62% feeling that the mainstream media (MSM) is not providing balanced and unbiased reporting. Bloomberg and the BBC ranked as the most trustworthy news brands while Al Jazeera and Russia Today ranked as the least trustworthy.

The group, which is marking one year since it was relaunched by its chair Katie Perrior and principal director Adam Honeysett-Watts, has been encouraging supporters – including 23 parliamentary patrons – to take part in its inaugural Census 2020. In addition to its industry patrons, a new tier of Tory peers and MPs – who have previously worked or have an interest in communications (public affairs, PR, policy, digital, marketing, events, journalism or publishing) – have recently signed-up. The team has also been widened to build out its offering to young conservatives and to get more women involved.

Survey respondents were largely positive about the Government’s original ‘Stay home’ message (4.49 out of 5). They scored all nine aspects of the daily press briefings, such as stage management and inviting the public to submit their questions, as effective; with the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognised as the most impressive performer. That said, there is little appetite for the conferences to become a permanent fixture. Further, supporters were invited to submit ideas for a new slogan or comment on the ‘Stay alert’ message. Of those who did, 69% proposed an alternative, which may have contributed to a lower score of 3.18 out of 5 for the Government’s overall strategy.

Turning to other topics. While 73% of participants benefited from flexible working and / or working from home (WFH) before the pandemic began, 90% will be advocating for this post-lockdown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, supporters do not miss commuting to and from work (77%), and many used this available time to spend with the family and to ‘think’ more about their work. Professionals have adapted quite well to the changes with 44% saying they have been more productive, especially when it comes to producing written materials for both internal and external clients. 42% said they’re more active while 41% have reallocated earnings.

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications and a former Director of Communications at Number 10, said:

“Our supporters have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the global pandemic. That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships. Although the many technologies – for example, Microsoft Teams and Zoom – have worked much better than expected, they are no substitute for face-to-face. Survey respondents cited less time with colleagues (60%) and friends (45%) as reasons they like least about WFH. I too, look forward to seeing my colleagues and clients as well as family and friends, in-person, very soon.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts said:

“We spotted an opportunity to relaunch and grow CiC into a more dynamic, proactive, diverse and transparent resource, and the pandemic has shown how much one is needed. While industry networking is the main reason our supporters joined us and continue to be involved, there is appetite for us to offer more. That includes advertising job opportunities (63%), sharing industry news (61%), connecting with our parliamentary patrons (59%), widening blog content (55%) as well as offering careers advice and mentoring opportunities (50%). Many of these are already in the works, including the latter, where 72% of supporters cited interest in being mentors.”

Note to Editors

You can learn more about the survey and access all of the results here.

As covered by PRWeek.

Events, dear boy

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

The unpredictability of politics was perhaps best described by Harold Macmillan as the sudden appearance of “Events, dear boy, events”. Although nobody – including his biographer – has been able to trace back to when he said that!

As the first quarter of 2020 has shown, the UK government has had to respond to ‘events’ rather than push on with other priorities. First came the storms (Brendan, Ciara, Dennis and Jorge) that caused travel disruption, flooding and damage to infrastructure. Next were sustained attacks on the Home Secretary – from the Left, disgruntled civil servants and some in the media, including that ghastly cartoon in The Guardian. But nothing, nothing could quite trump Coronavirus and its dominance in the national conversation. At work, you will hear colleagues singing the national anthem or happy birthday (twice) or counting to 20 – while washing their hands. At home, some family members are ‘self-isolating’ having stock-piled enough paracetamol, pasta and toilet roll to last them a lifetime.

Pesky things, these events. So far, the prime minister and his team have weathered them all. What’s next, I hear you ask? Only one of the biggest events in the parliamentary calendar and the first for more than a year.

Several weeks ago, Rishi Sunak had no idea he would be replacing Sajid Javid as the country’s second BME Chancellor and delivering a Budget this Wednesday. Nor could he have envisaged ‘Black Monday’, which saw some of the biggest daily stock market drops since the 2008 global financial crisis and trading in US shares briefly suspended.

Thankfully, his closeness to Number 10 – he was Boris Johnson’s stand-in for one of the TV debates – as well as his time in financial services (Goldman Sachs and The Children’s Investment Fund Management) and more recently as Chief Secretary to the Treasury means he has both the support from the top and the experience to deliver the goods against economic uncertainty. The question is how radical can and does the Chancellor want to be in reshaping the UK’s economy?

My suspicion is he does but he can’t do everything this time; with the more dramatic measures postponed until either the Spending Review or Autumn Statement. Speaking on The Today Programme about the Budget, George Osborne said the government needs to “vaccinate the economy”. He is probably right.

Just look at what has been pre-briefed: 2020 will be the last year that women are taxed on sanitary products plus there is double funding for flood defences, employment tax breaks for veterans and £8 million for football pitches. All of these make sense to me and I’m certain will be welcomed by those affected, but they are hardly earth-shattering. I hope – and anticipate – there will be much more on the levelling-up agenda, as expectations of this government – from all quarters, but especially blue-collar workers – are very high; more so, as it’s been the longest gap between budgets since the 19th century.

It is customary for the Chairman of Ways & Means to chair the debate on the Chancellor’s Budget. I look forward to being in the chamber to see Dame Eleanor Laing – the first woman to hold that post – on this historic event, during Women’s History Month.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘Events, dear boy, events’ – March 11, 2020).