The Conservatives may be doing the right thing, but in the wrong way

 

With all these massive changes in the our social welfare system going on, I wonder if they are being communicated with honesty and, in particular, if the Conservative element of the Coalition couldn’t be transmitting their message in a less damaging way to their brand?

Here’s my story (sorry it’s another long one):

In 2007 a professional contact, who has become a personal friend of mine, happened to be appointed to head up one of the Study Review Groups in Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

He asked me if I would run my eye over his team’s final report. I won’t say which one but it is an area of society in which I have some experience and expertise. And I like to think he asked me because he would value the wisdom of my input.

Anyway, once I had read the report, which ran to several hundred pages, we met to discuss my response. Overall, it was a very worthy piece of work on which I had a few minor comments.

I would like to emphasise that I was not a member of the Conservative Party and I am not now, but I am prepared to believe that Iain Duncan Smith is an innately good man and that what he was trying to achieve was genuine and for the overall public good, particularly the underclass in our society that rarely appears in our target audience profiles in the commercial world.

And, to give him his due, as an ex-leader of the Conservative Party, Duncan Smith could have spent his time making money on the after-dinner speaking circuit. But he didn’t. He got downbeat and dirty and tried to understand the real world out there. As a human being, as much as a politician, I admire him for that (not that they have PR’d it very well).

However, when we met, I did say to my friend that, as and when a General Election was called, there would be an over-arching barrier for all of Duncan Smith’s Social Review Groups to overcome.

This would be the deeply entrenched views held by many of the electorate about the Conservative Party and that these views would provoke a response that would override any specific policies, however worthy, just because they came from the Tories.

I advised that there was a communications challenge for the Conservatives to present themselves in a new light and, as a brand, to persuade people to throw away their old prejudices and re-consider the Tories in order for Duncan Smith’s initiatives to be accepted more readily and objectively and on their own merits.

As a non-member of the Conservative or any other political party, I felt from a professional point of view – if they were a client, if you like – that this would be an interesting intellectual challenge (and, ok I admit it, a bit of a pitch).

My friend suggested I submit my views to the Central Office of the Party, which I did.

So here is the verbatim presentation I provided, converted word-for-Word, from a Powerpoint presentation. Sorry it is rather long, and please note it was written four years ago, but it leads to a couple of points I would like to make at the end which I think are influencing the current national debate.

I will separate out the presentation by lines of asterisks so you can go straight to the end if you like:

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How to win the next election. Presentation to the Conservatives.

(The Salmon Agency. December 2007).

Background

Historically (until ‘New Labour’?), it was much easier to differentiate between Conservative and Labour. There were much clearer ideological differences between the two parties – and these differences were much easier to define: tax, privatisation etc.

Now the two parties aren’t seen to be very different at all: they both fight for the same ‘Centre Ground.’

To this day, New Labour harps back to the record of the Conservative Governments from 1979-1997. Yet, despite this, many of the policies of that period have been accepted, maintained and developed by Labour (see Appendix).

If the ideological wars are over, it was the Conservatives who won them.

This is the truth.

What is now called ‘the centre ground’ is where Conservatives have been all along – Labour had to move position, not the other way round. Brazenly, New Labour have stolen the Conservative position – and are being allowed to get away with it! This cannot be allowed to happen…..

What next?

The Conservatives have the right to claim:

i)        that the Conservatives who won the ‘ideological war’ – the Conservatives were right all along

ii)       that Labour, particularly Gordon Brown, have been forced to abandon all their past, socialist, principles

iii)       that Labour had to move to what is now called the ‘Centre Ground’ (which, ideologically, has always been the Conservative position)

iv)      that Labour don’t know HOW to govern Britain now they are there

v)       that, having won the ideological war, the Conservatives will now define a new politics to drive Britain (and the world) forward into the 21st century.

This is an inexorable logical flow. The question is, how to do it?

The 6 ‘C’s (of Conservative Communications)

We believe the Conservatives have 6 ‘C’s to consider:

–        Cynicism

–        Context

–        Competitiveness

–        Clarity

–        Creativity

–        Confidence

And that the following six pages will help the Conservatives win the next election……

Cynicism

Many of the electorate are cynical about the Conservatives (particularly in regard to the role of the State Sector in health and education and ‘caring’ for the needy).

Cynicism is an emotion which will not be overcome by rational arguments, particularly when presented as ‘policy proposals.’

(Consumer insight – people are not interested in policies, policies are boring, politicians do them).

Cynicism will not be overcome when presented in the negative.

(Consumer insight – people are not interested in ‘broken societies’, they want positive messages).

Cynicism and suspicion can be overcome by:

–        the personal charisma of a particular leader

–        an outstanding track record of delivery by one party (or, by default, by the chaotic state of the other)

–        creating a simple, easy-to-understand over-arching context.

Context

The Conservatives have a unique opportunity to take the high ground of British, and perhaps even international, politics.

Britain – and the rest of the world – exists as a market economy in a world market.

The old, socialist agenda was wrong – the Conservatives were right (sic).

The Conservatives have the right to claim this victory – and should be proud of it.

BUT… the price that has been paid by the anti-socialist, ‘market economy’ victory is electoral cynicism that Conservativism is a ‘money-means-all’ philosophy.

This can be overcome by a simple, easy-to-understand over-arching context:

–        by claiming victory against the old, socialist agenda

–        by building on this undeniable truth

–        by re-defining the role of Government in a modern ‘market economy’

–        and so establishing a competitive point of difference against Labour….

Competitiveness

The percentage of the electorate bothering to vote is decreasing. They find increasingly difficult to differentiate between the parties. Some generalisations:

–        ‘politicians’ speak in a language people don’t understand

–        people aren’t interested in ‘policies’

–        especially when parties steal them from each other

–        the major parties are see king the same ‘centre ground’

–        and are seen to be largely interchangeable

–        A competitive point of difference is staring the Conservatives in the face:

“ROLE OF GOVERNMENT”

Clarity

“ROLE OF GOVERNMENT”

There is a massive gap between Conservatives and Labour here:

–        it is NOT the Government or a Minister’s job to give you a flu jab

–        it is NOT the Government or a Minister’s job to teach your child to read

–        it is NOT the Government or a Minister’s job to arrest the local thief

GORDON BROWN THINKS IT IS!

It IS the Government’s job to ENABLE these things (not CONTROL them). And to do so efficiently and effectively.

There is an opportunity (a need?) for the Conservatives to ruthlessly examine every aspect of society and define the part Government has to play in it. In fact, through the Policy Groups, most of the work is already being done…

Creativity

The work of each of the Policy Groups could be presented more creatively ie….

–        more different (unique)

–        more relevant

–        more engaging

By applying one, simple over-arching context: “ROLE OF GOVERNMENT”

This is where The Salmon Agency can help by bringing fresh, creative thinking to each of the Policy Groups within this context. We already have some new ideas we can bring to the party.

And thus help the Conservatives become a party of positive change by presenting:

–        a clear point of difference vs Labour

–        an unarguable, rational reason to vote Conservative

–        an exciting vision of an new, world-leading Britain

–        and the emotional reward that we can all be part of a new future

Confidence

Right across society, the Policy Groups are doing a FANTASTIC job identifying problems (‘a broken society’) and producing ‘policies’ to overcome them but:

–        people don’t care about policies (they don’t see them as ‘solutions’)

–        and Labour can steal them

People want principles and values. So, it would be more POSITIVE to communicate that the Conservatives:

i)        have an unqualified commitment to the State sector, especially in defined areas e.g. Health, Education, Protection etc (needs discussion)

ii)       are absolutely committed to helping the poor and the needy, whoever they are and wherever they may be

iii        have ruthlessly interrogated every aspect of society and identified who:

–        need the help and protection of more effective Government

–        would benefit from the freedom of less intrusive Government 

And thus make more of the electorate FEEL confident enough to vote Conservative.

Conclusion

1.       Create clear space between Conservative and Labour.

2.       Take the moral and economic high ground by claiming victory over the old, socialist ideologies propounded by Labour (especially Gordon Brown).

3.       Promise the electorate a new, exciting future for Britain (and the developed world).

4.       Reassure the electorate that the Conservatives care about each and every UK citizen, including the poor, unhealthy and needy, and have thought through the way ‘The State’ can help every single one of them…

          …BY…

5.       Understanding and re-defining the ‘Role of Government’ in today’s market economy

6.       Re-thinking and re-presenting the work of the Policy Groups in this context (including fresh, ‘upstream’ creative thinking applied by The Salmon Agency)

7.       Developing a new, over-arching communications strategy based on principles (not ‘policies’)

8.       And so presenting a new ‘vision’ to make the Conservatives (and David Cameron) a more relevant, more attractive – and more electable – alternative to Labour.

Appendix

From ‘How to Get Rich’ (2007) by Felix Dennis (Britain’s ‘36th Richest Person’):

“I have little time for many of Margaret Thatcher’s policies….But she smashed the union’s grip on Britain’s economy and helped create a climate in which denationalisation of major industries became the cry for Socialist, Liberal and Conservative alike. And if you don’t like my reading of history, ask Tony Blair….

…I, and many thousands like me, will always be grateful to the old handbag for bringing the sweet aroma of competition to what, after all, is a nation of shopkeepers…

…I am a Labour man born and bred. I will die voting Labour. It’s a tribal thing…

…Even so, that lack of competition nearly ruined Britain…it brought us to the edge of an abyss from which I doubt we would have crawled out in my lifetime. Thatcher dragged us back from the brink and nobody knows that better than the current Labour administration. After all, they stole many of her and John Major’s policies, and made them their own. Very successfully, too.

Now that’s how to handle competition!”

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So that was my presentation.

It was submitted to Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson and their PAs. Steve Hilton agreed to a meeting but I couldn’t make the proposed date. I was on a photographic shoot in The Bahamas – well, you have to put your existing clients first, don’t you? And, by the time I had come back from the sun, he had gone cold on me.

Since then, the Conservatives have launched their ‘Big Society’ initiative. How closely that is related to re-defining the ‘Role of Government’? I will leave to you to decide.

So why do I, four years later, bring all this up again?

Well, I am concerned that the Coalition are using the deficit bequeathed to them as an excuse for making social changes they were planning to introduce anyway.

For example, take this week’s housing benefit announcement, presented as ‘necessary cuts’.

An ex-colleague of mine now has business interests in Barbados. Twice now, he has flown, in the luxury and comfort of a Business Class seat, next to a guy who holidays in Barbados six times a year but lives in a Council House back home.

Now, I suspect Iain Duncan Smith spotted that there are people like this and, as I think most of us would agree, there is something about it that is not quite right.

But, by wrapping what should and could have been all the positive ‘Big Society’ (‘Role of Government’) social changes into some sort of response to the deficit they inherited is not only negative and dishonest but will result in the following:

1.       Those that want to think of the Conservatives as cold and calculating will continue to do so. The Tories, especially the rather freaky George Osborne (look at his face as he sits behind David Cameron at PMQS!), have failed to show what they would call ‘the common touch’.

2.       The Liberal Democrats will realise that they have been conned (sic) and that the Conservatives have used the deficit to force through some of these radical social changes under the guise of deficit cuts.

3.       When the LibDems do realise they have been conned, the survival of the Coalition will be under threat, which will be a pity because I like it.

4.       Further divisions in an increasingly divided society.

Surely before charging into these savage cuts, which will affect our businesses and homes, it would have been better management to capitalise and monetise:

i)        the savings and inefficiencies identified by Sir Philip Green

ii)       the sale of unneeded physical assets, especially ‘Government’ property,

iii)       the forward value (‘securitisation’?) of the Bank shares we now hold?

And then cut.

By managing the ‘business of Britain’ of this way, the Conservatives could have made a positive out of a negative by communicating that cutting was the last, not the first, resort – just as their most diehard critics would expect their natural Tory instincts to be.

As it is, beyond the wrath of their own Mayor of London, I fear the human effect of a keen but over-enthusiastic new Conservative led Government will result, at best, in unnecessary suffering and, at worst, social chaos.

I do think that all this could have been avoided by researching these issues and thinking them through (strategy) and then communicating them in a more thoughtful, understanding and humane way (execution).

I hope I am wrong.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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One Response to The Conservatives may be doing the right thing, but in the wrong way

  1. Hugh Salmon says:

    6 November 2010. “Rowan Williams attacks Coalition over Big Society and spending cuts. The Archbishop of Canterbury has accused David Cameron of failing to “think through” his plans for the Big Society….. His comments, which followed private talks with the Prime Minister, reinforced his warning that the Big Society agenda must not be simply “an alibi” for public spending cuts.” http://bit.ly/aL7RIC

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