In many ways it was a simpler time for political communication and human interaction in general, involving fewer technological gadgets and more direct interaction. Perhaps the key to winning the next General Election in 2020 will land on the palm of those who successfully revisit the simplicity of the past and are able to distinguish sound strategy from noise.
The UK Labour party’s 1945 general election strategy makes for an interesting case study because it resulted in what one could describe as a significant victory causing a rift in decades of Conservative government rule. Indeed, the party’s strategic ingenuity combined to a great extent the with Conservatives’ weaknesses, propelled Labour to victory, as it won its “first parliamentary majority”. This particular political campaign is also worth re-visiting because it occurred during a period when marketing ideas had not yet seeped into the mind set of politicians and communications specialists, before the so-called technologically driven “transformation” of politics , as described by the political communications scholar John Street, had fully occurred yet.
Following the devastating effects of the Second World War for the economy and British society, there was an unprecedented demand for change among the electorate, especially the working classes, which the Labour party successfully channelled for its into its political message. The following analysis will focus on four main strategic elements of the electoral campaign, the focus on change, policy, public opinion and the media and it will discuss to what extent the Labour party handled them successfully. The argument underlying the current discussion is that while many of the communication channels in existence today, such as TV and social media had not yet entered the mass consumer market at the time, politicians could still reach voters through more traditional mediums such as radio and print. Perhaps, through a return to the basics some patterns of best practice could emerge and prove beneficial for modern political campaigners.
Focusing on Change rather than Continuity
The Labour campaign largely consisted of focusing on the past failings of the Conservative government, when it wrongly attempted to appease Germany and the party also emphasised the worsening of living conditions in Britain during the war period. Their key to success was convincing the electorate that “in reality, electors who did not want to see the return of a Conservative government had no choice but to vote ‘straight left’, which the Labour politicians seem to have done successfully. There were of course pitfalls to a campaign which incorporated a focus on the war, because leading the allies to victory was precisely what was the underlying factor in the perception of Churchill as a strong leader. Yet, despite the high personal rating and popularity of the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill in comparison with the Labour leader Clement Attlee, a series of ill-conceived, negative campaign public appearances resulted in a decrease in popularity for the Conservative leader. A moment considered as decisive for the success of the Labour campaign was Churchill’s “Gestapo” speech which, rather unwisely, made references to Nazi Germany in order to accuse the Labour leader of being dictatorial. Unsurprisingly, the British public did not react well to this example of negative campaigning by the Conservatives and thus Labour benefited.
Focus on specific policy issues and the socialist ideology
The exact extent to which specific policies played a role in the winning of votes for Labour is open to debate, as historians tend to exaggerate the degree to which the members of the general public were radicalised by the war, and in this way defining the process of voter support as bottom-up rather than top-down, thus downplaying the significance of campaign strategy. Yet the emphasis on issues such as the recommendations of the Beveridge Report, which “advocated family allowances, a free health service and full employment, and…abolishing poverty” were certainly tactical steps upon which the Labour manifesto was built and suggest that it adopted a “policy-related information campaign” approach. Furthermore, the ideological divide between the Conservatives and Labour helped the latter win many voters, in particular those who identified themselves as working class or lower middle class. This is confirmed by Fielding, who states that “Forty-three per cent of Labour supporters stated they voted for the party because it best represented working class interests”. Thus it seems that Labour’s tactical move to remain close to its core electorate and to promote specific policies that reflected Socialist ideals was a choice that impacted its victory greatly.
Responsiveness to Opinion Polling and Tactical Voting
Interestingly, the general election of 1945 proved to attracted a lot of opinion polling, used to establish the mood of the electorate such as the “Gallup” international public opinion polls, and “Mass-Observation” surveys. Social research was greatly important, because it allowed parties to have a more realistic undertanding of the dominant mood of the public and thus craft their strategy accordingly. The responsiveness of the Labour party to public opinion may not seem significant in comparison with the sensitivity of today’s political parties, but it was nonetheless greater than the awareness displayed by the Conservative party. This was a strategic advantage and is reflected in the party’s emphasis that Labour should be the natural choice of “the People” and that “the choice is between Labour and Conservative and that all other alternatives are illusory’”. This, in combination with the first-past-the-post electoral system in Britain, created a lot of “tactical voting”. Convincing swing or undecided members of the electorate that they should vote Labour even if they sympathised with the Liberals or other smaller parties was very important in order to secure electoral victory.
Transforming public cynicism
One of the most important problems for the Labour party during the 1945 election was dealing with the cynicism towards politics in general which was prevalent among the public and especially the armed forces. As many as 40% of service personnel did not vote in the 1945 general election. Their disenchantment with politics is a theme that wouldn’t be out of place in the modern political context in Britain. Furthermore, ideas that spread at the time such as the claim that all politicians are the same and the notion that they are not legitimate representatives of the common people wouldn’t be out of place in modern society. One of the most challenging tasks was to somehow turn the negative attitudes of the public around and mobilise the electorate. Part of the communications strategy of the Labour party was also the use of pro- Labour media outlets for “message framing”, and defining the electoral battle in terms of the “Will of the People” and promoting the Left political agenda. Salient examples of this were the political news produced by newspapers such as the “Daily Telegraph… Daily Worker” and “The Herald editorial, entitled “The People Win”, which aimed to equate the Labour party with the people. A further strategic element was to use celebrities such as John B. Priestley, a novelist, playwright and broadcasters as public supporters of the party’s agenda. The extent to which politicians had direct influence over the radio or newspaper appearances of such celebrities is difficult to estimate but the effect, which such supporters had on popular opinion of the party were widely positive on this occasion. Indeed, Labour was moderately successful in mobilising the public, by securing a vote in unprecedented numbers: it won 47-8% of votes cast, or 36% of the total electorate.
To conclude, it appears that the Labour election strategy contained passive and active tactical elements whose direct effect on the electorate and translation into parliamentary seats is open to debate. If we adopt a short term definition of success, implying that a campaign is successful if the party secures a parliamentary majority then the Labour strategy was certainly successful. Even viewed from a more long-term perspective the campaign was successful as it allowed politicians to implement important policy changes involving the nationalisation of business sectors and the creation of the Welfare state, which have resulted in lasting consequences for British society, influencing the process and outcome of governance. When taking into account campaign messages in the run up to the British 2015 general elections, some of the ideas, including the importance of the NHS and greater social security continued to have a strategic significance. Yet whatever the cardinal mistakes of the Labour party in 2015 were (and there is wide-ranging debate on the factors that caused their defeat) one thing seems clear – they should have probably relied more on simpler, straight-forward channels of communication to reach and inspire the electorate. Whether the party will successfully recover after the painful loss remains to be seen.