(Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
A snap election! It was exciting, particularly to be a candidate in a target seat. Expectations and enthusiasm were sky high.
We all know it didn’t end that way. Now we undertake and endure the post-mortems on what went wrong. We have to know. We have to understand. We have to respond.
There is a huge focus on process and policy. The Conservative Party is undertaking its own comprehensive review: Mark Wallace on Conservative Home has produced a superlative, detailed analysis of process and George Freeman and many others are leading the policy debate, not least at the inaugural Big Tent event.
One issue which cuts across policy and process, however, is the question of how we frame our message. I know that Conservative voters, activists, candidates and MPs are motivated by an authentic desire to improve our communities, and are directed by a profound sense of social responsibility and fairness. How is it that we allow ourselves to be framed by our opposition as uncaring, uncompassionate and even downright evil? Surely we must be able to work harder and smarter to find a means of communicating with voters in a more accessible and empathetic way?
Language matters. Take the basic definition of left wing parties being ‘progressive’, which instantly becomes problematic when you consider the opposite is inherently ‘regressive’.
And take ‘austerity’. The term was used by David Cameron and George Osborne in 2009 as a necessary policy response to Labour’s recession. In his review of Labour’s loss in 2010, Labour MP Jon Cruddas observed that the Conservatives “did not win despite austerity, but because of it.” And yet, whilst it is an accepted political-economic term, austerity necessarily has synonyms which include harshness, coldness and severity. Predictably, its antonyms include kindness, mildness and meekness.
By 2017, with memories of the recession fading and patience waning, we failed to adapt our language to the political and economic landscape and were consequently labelled blunt and robotic. We could have adopted an alternative language espousing prudence, restraint and balance in our argument to continue fiscal responsibility but we failed to make the case and to frame our policy and purpose within an emotional framework which voters could relate to.
In the intervening years, our opponents had managed to frame key policies very effectively using misleading shorthand language: Bedroom Tax, Dementia Tax. Our opponents appeal to emotional statements with which no one could disagree, like ‘nurses and firefighters deserve decent pay’. This is partly a luxury of opposition but is also a powerful framing of morality and compassion against which pure rationality is often no match.
When we attempted to use the Garden Tax as a similar shorthand during the recent election it simply did not gain traction. Was it the wrong target? Was it too little, too late? Or is it just not our style to characterise our opponents or their policies in that way?
It seems to me that the Leave campaign’s success in the EU Referendum was in part due to its positive, emotionally powerful plea to ‘take back control’, in contrast to the negative statistical motivation of so-called ‘Project Fear’.
In the US political arena, the use of linguistics and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is much more advanced, and high-profile exponents like Frank Luntz and George Lakoff drive the use of ‘science’ to influence the way people think.
The renowned motivational guru Tony Robbins argues that emotion is the force of life and that whilst we can rationalise anything, it is only when we bring emotion into our lives that we can truly persuade others. ‘Leaders shape us’ he says, ‘because they understand the forces that shape us.’
I believe we need to become more adept at injecting passion and sincerity into our arguments so as to ensure our policies resonate with what voters feel as well as what they think. Perhaps we should include the ability to connect with people as part of the candidate selection process, emphasising activist training and focussing on the emotional argument within our briefing process and our entire communications strategy. We should certainly be including this issue within the debate about how we operate in the future.
Clearly, language and presentation is not enough to make a difference on its own, nor should it be, nor do we want leaders who do nothing but emote. And language or emotion which does not accurately reflect reality will rightly be seen as inauthentic.
But until we recognise its power and potential to influence not only our image but the whole policy debate, we will struggle to connect with the voters upon whom we depend.
Julie Marson was a Convervative candidate in the 2017 General Election