What happened? The UK is constitutionally in uncharted waters. After weeks of political campaigning no party won outright and a massive surge by the Liberal Democratic party fizzled into nothing (although in a remarkable turn of events they now have unprecedented power to decide the political future of the UK)
But after weeks of high profile, in which they went from years of dismally polling a fairly distant third to the other main political parties to sporadically outstripping both of them, to only for that ‘surge’ to melt away on the day that it mattered, even though they gained almost a million more votes ( a one percentage rise) than in the previous election in 2005. Of course, a presidential-style set of three television debates with the party leaders, a first for the UK, contributed to the media melee.
There are several lessons to learn here about political communication.
Firstly, the glare of overexposure threw the LibDem’s campaign. Absurdly, a communication and reputation crisis was spawned from an unmitigated success, not a failure. Caught out by their sudden success, they had to maintain momentum but remained overfocussed on the Clegg effect and failed to spread the focus of attraction consistently. Differing messages were given to different media outlets, pandering to the audience without fully understanding that in the modern media environment, whispers get everywhere.
Secondly, CB3 always warns of the problem of over-messaging. But, being candid, this is in fact a misnomer. The message must be maintained but the data or information required to support the message – the flesh on the bones – must be varied, otherwise publics will become inured to, or at worst bored of, the same justifications. The LibDem message was good but the supporting data not varied enough – the public, initially made to sit up on the appearance of the third man saying new, fresh things, became tired of fresh ideas as they were represented in the same fashion repeatedly.
And thirdly, message momentum has to be maintained and increasingly detailed. The LibDem stance, and therefore message, on issues such as immigration and Trident, to name but a few, was never fully developed and given substance in terms of supporting data.
Of course, a largely right-wing press contributed to the failure of the surge, but a failure to develop arguments, spread the spectrum and loss of message momentum equally contributed to the failure of the LibDems to capitalise on brief but significant public adoration and the delivery of what is now a constitutional conundrum.
These are lessons, quickly observed but not assessed in detail. Importantly, they are not criticisms of actions taken or not taken during what must have been a whirlwind ride in the media glare which few could have foreseen or easily dealt with. CB3 doesn’t wish to be an armchair general and recognises that the challenges faced by the LibDems, especially their campaign team, were massive and little understood by those looking in from the outside.