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The first instalment of the BBC’s new documentary Thatcher: A Very British Revolution charted how Mrs Thatcher integrated the Iron Lady mantle into her political persona as she sought to become Britain’s first female Prime Minister.
We heard how Mrs Thatcher’s political strategist and pollster Gordon Reece worked with her to improve her elocution and enunciation in speech and debate – after discovering the public at large found her voice to be too high and shrill.
It was an example of successful political brand management. The Conservatives would go on to win four consecutive elections and spend 18 years in office, with Mrs Thatcher changing the political landscape at home and abroad, and influencing the politics of generations to come.
The Conservative Party today is in dire need a similar substantial brand and reputation repair. They have become ever more closely associated with incompetence, chaos and defeat.
As they ponder their defeat in the European elections, Conservatives need once again to ask themselves who they are and what they stand for. The Tories’ mission and raison d’être has become obscured and hazy after nine years in government and through the Byzantine and Kafkaesque process of Brexit.
To borrow a discredited phrase from Mrs Thatcher’s successor John Major, the party today has to get “back to basics” in articulating its values and vision for the country.
In just a matter of weeks, the insurgent Brexit Party has gone from nowhere to almost 32% in the European elections.
Listening to Nigel Farage on the campaign trail – as he dodged milkshakes – you were left in no doubt where his new party stands and what they represent. Farage doesn’t even talk about Europe now in the TV studios and on his rallies, much less immigration – he clearly feels like he doesn’t have to.
Betrayal and the defence of democracy form the basis of the Brexit Party’s crystal-clear messaging.
Over simplistic? Perhaps. Effective? Absolutely.
In 2016, Vote Leave proved how having clear messages makes a tremendous amount of difference in campaigns. Another proponent of message discipline, my old boss Lynton Crosby, has demonstrated this time and again.
In the consumer world, a brand’s reputation is simply the sum of how it is viewed by others. A favourable brand reputation means consumers trust your company, and have positive feelings about purchasing your goods or services. A poor brand reputation, clearly means the reverse.
Like trustworthiness, your reputation takes consistent effort over time to build up, and can be lost within seconds from one thoughtless act or remark.
It is clear the Tories have been trashing their own brand for the past few years. So how do they rebuild from here?
They have to be honest. The next leader can begin by being straight with the electorate that the first phase of the Brexit talks has not gone to plan – but that they are committed to delivering an orderly exit to begin realising some of the benefits of being outside the EU.
The party leadership should have the courage to acknowledge the shortcomings in the preparations and negotiations to date.
Some sincerity and transparency are needed to address the painful truth that this process has left the country more divided and frustrated than it was before. Whether you’re Leave or Remain the buck must stop with the party – and only once this is admitted can they start to address it.
The Tories then need to tell a positive story. The party needs to deeply reflect on how it communicates what it’s been doing for the past decade, and why it should continue in office.
This requires figuring out what they’ve done right in the job.
Higher education reforms mean more students from poor backgrounds are going to university than ever before. Michael Gove’s education revolution has seen most secondary schools successfully becoming more autonomous academies. Standards are also soaring: since Labour left office, the proportion of children in schools rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted has risen from 66 to 85%.
On climate change, Britain has cut emissions faster than any G20 country since 1990, and earlier this month the country went a week without burning any coal to make electricity – the first coal-free week since 1882.
Jobs have been created at a faster rate than at any time in our economic history, wages are growing at the fastest rate in ten years. The highest-paid 1% are now paying a record 28% of all income tax. The economy has grown continuously for the past nine years, and faster than France, Italy and Japan.
There is a £34bn a year increase in investment for the NHS, the single largest cash commitment ever made by a peacetime British Government.
The Conservatives have done a remarkable job in office in many areas, if only they had the confidence and courage to tell this story more robustly and consistently.
With the utterly predictable ascent of Farage, and the ongoing, plausible threat of a Corbyn-McDonnell led government after the next election it is essential the party’s leaders get out there and reach out to current and former supporters to win them back before they are lost forever.
But they must do what they say they will. Since entering government in 2010, the Conservatives have made a series of promises on the country’s EU membership. First the in-out referendum in 2013, the pledge then to respect the outcome and implement whichever decision the country made. In the 2017 manifesto the party promised we would leave the single market and customs union.
At her leadership launch in 2016, Theresa May said “there must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door, and no second referendum.”
You may remember she also said there should be no general election until 2020, and even that Article 50 should not be triggered “until the British negotiating strategy is agreed and clear.”
The more promises a brand makes and keeps, the stronger its reputation gets. By the same token, not delivering promises or simply failing to manage expectations can be devastating.
People tend not to remember the promises you actually keep, but rarely forget the ones you break.
When brands fail to meet expectations or deliver promises, consumers predictably become disappointed, angry, or frustrated, and lose confidence in the brand.
When the Conservatives get back to a position where they consistently make and keep promises over time, they will slowly rebuild the trust with their supporters and confidence with the wider public. They must walk the walk and back up what they’ve been saying.
The only way out of this political maelstrom is to deliver Brexit, in short order and as smoothly as possible. Failing to do this will mean electoral oblivion, perhaps permanently damaging the perception of the party and its ability to manage the country. The negative, lasting impact on the party’s reputation will eclipse both the Suez Crisis and Black Wednesday.
A political party’s brand image is the sum total of all the perceptions held by its current, past, and potential supporters about what it has to offer – its quality and its value if you will.
A reputation is far more than that though – it is the entirety of public opinion about a party’s actions, behaviour and achievements. In a nutshell, if brand is image plus identity, reputation is these two combined plus the character of the party, the embodiment of the organisation as a person – which is almost always represented by the current leader.
You cannot repair or build your reputation overnight, it has to be earnt over time. As Lynton Crosby famously says “you can’t fatten a pig on market day.”
You build your reputation by doing what you say you will – delivering on your promises, actioning your manifesto pledges, and respecting your base and core vote.
Ed Miliband fared so miserably in the 2015 general election for two reasons. First, he and his supporters were too relaxed about the trashing of New Labour’s record in office, even by supposed Labour supporters. If you are not prepared to defend your own party’s record then why should anyone back you when you’re leading the same organisation?
Secondly, his team were very slow to respond and reject the effective attacks by the Conservatives that the last Labour government had overspent and contributed to the 2008-09 Great Recession. As a result, Labour were firmly associated with the economic pain many in the country felt following the global financial crisis. They had allowed their opponents, brand competitors if you will, to fill a vacuum and define them.
It is not set in stone that the Conservatives will flourish electorally, or that the country will reject Corbyn. The party does not have a divine right to succeed and exist indefinitely – Tories remember the wilderness years in opposition when we could not land a glove on Tony Blair.
There is a useful comparison with English football. It is in rude health nowadays but just like any self-respecting Premier League football club, no political party is too big to fail – just ask Leeds fans following their fall from grace in the 2000s. The mighty Liverpool still haven’t won a league title since 1990. The once invincible Arsenal have now finished behind rivals Spurs for three seasons running, and have not credibly challenged for the league in over a decade.
Deep reflection is needed about the future direction and character of the Tory party. The forthcoming contest provides an opportunity for frank conversations and a lasting renewal. To paraphrase Mrs Thatcher, restoring the confidence of the Conservative Party and this great nation is a massive task, and Tories do not shrink from it.
Stephen Lynch is Managing Director of Lynch Communications, a public affairs and PR consultancy. He was a Conservative Party Press Officer from 2015 to 2017