Saturday, May 5, 2012

Local Election Results - Nothing We Didn't Already Know

I'm getting a bit bored of the hysterical local election results coverage now. It's difficult to see what these results tell us that we didn't already know. There is a lot of commentary, especially from anti-Cameron right wing commentators as well as the normal party political spin from Labour, around the state of the Conservative party and its leadership.

Based on the local election results the BBC estimates the national share of the vote as the Tories on 31%, Labour on 38% and the Lib Dems on 16%. This outcome reflects what polls have been telling us about Tory support for about a month now. Labour's support is not anywhere near the peek of 45% some polls have suggested and the Lib Dems (who always do better at local elections) is higher.

If anything, the lack of much improvement in the popular vote for Ed Miliband's Labour party since last year's local elections is comment worthy, but instead we're hearing how fantastically well Labour have done and how Cameron's "gaffe prone" government is in real trouble.

Focus has been on the number of council seats gained and lost by the parties since these seats were last up for election in 2008. But Labour couldn't have failed to win 700 odd seats given the low base they were at 4 years ago and the very high base the Tories achieved. Labour did well to win about 100 more than that but that's still not terribly surprising. It's worth remembering that Labour gained over 400 seats in the local elections on the same day they lost the General Election in 2010, with a Michael Foot-esque share of the national vote due, again, to the base positions of the parties when those seats had last been elected. So, Labour haven't produced anything worth the hype. The danger is that all the positive coverage they are getting will start to embed the idea that the same lot of failures that ran this country into the ground up to 2010 are credible candidates to run the country again in 2015.

The main difference between now and last year's election is the fall in Tory support. There's no doubt Cameron has some major issues with communicating his government's agenda. This has been a major contributor to the Tories drop in support of about 5% since the general election. For example, the last budget cut taxes for the poor and increased the amount of tax raised from the rich, but you'd think the opposite was true from the coverage it received in the media. This last month has seen one issue after another spin out of control. The government's position in most cases has been reasonably defensible. But no adequate expectation setting before policy announcements seems to take place. Then, following announcements or potentially damaging events, no effective rebuttal of opposition attacks occurs, allowing them to drive the media agenda and influence public opinion.

I have to admit, the lack of aggressive media management from the likes of the mendacious Alistair Campbell is refreshing in this government. But perhaps Labour had it right. Could it be that a modern political party can't survive without aggressively bullying the media to get your line into their headlines. I hope that is not the case. But one way or the other the Tories need to get their point across. Otherwise, Labour's minor successes like these local elections will continue to be blown out of all proportion and their, often misleading, narrative on government policy will become the perceived truth in the public's mind. It could already be too late.

Of course, the Tories woes are not all down to poor communication. They are lacking a strong message that goes beyond getting the nation's finances back into shape (and even that is arguably suffering as they increasingly water down their policies as the going gets tough and in response to pressure from their worried coalition partners). The Big Society was supposed to provide a broader agenda but it's disappeared as has Steve Hilton, Cameron's policy guru and nothing seems to have replaced it or him.

Cameron shouldn't be panicked into any policy lurches to the left or right. But he should take some time now to clarify what his broad message is and how to effectively get it across to voters. He should start by looking at who he has working on media management and policy development. Then he needs to start planning to differentiate the Tories from the coalition, focusing on what he'd like to do but currently can't and how a majority Tory government would deliver if given a chance.