The Conservative party’s lead in the polls is getting smaller day-by-day as the Labour party builds up momentum in the lead up to the next General Election. The most recent poll from YouGov (1st March 2010) suggests that the Conservative lead has been cut to just two points (Conservatives 37% – Labour 35%), this is the closest the two parties have been in more than two years. Despite Cameron’s Conservative lead it seems Gordon Brown can still win. How come?
Low involvement from the general public is a key factor in politics today. People just are not interested in party politics anymore, whether that is because of the mass of information we are fed from the media on a daily basis, perhaps people just haven’t got the time to sift through all of it and make informed judgements. Or perhaps the public are just uninterested in politics nowadays and would rather read about the exploits of celebrities such as Katie Price or Tiger Woods. Therefore politicians nowadays must appeal to audiences who largely only peripherally process information in order to engage with a relatively uninterested and unmotivated electorate that lacks the impetus to really think about political messages.
Peripheral cues such as: sound bites, photo opportunities, TV interviews and social networking must be exploited if politicians wish to engage with the masses and try to influence voting intentions. There is an information overload in the media when it comes to politics, especially during the run up to an election, so peripheral cues become even more important.
Media reporting and bias towards politics may act as peripheral cues for the electorate to engage with politicians, such as when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as Labour leader. A 6% swing in the polls overnight coincided with Gordon Brown’s takeover of the Labour party. It is likely that peripheral processing of messages was crucial to the 6% change in support, as central processing of information generally takes place over an extended period of time and suggests the individual critically weighs up arguments for and against before making any significant attitude change. Media hype and positive messages coming from Downing Street may have acted as peripheral cues for the electorate to back Gordon Brown, simply because he was not Tony Blair. The strong acceptance speech Gordon Brown gave was one of the key features to initiating the attitude swing from the Conservatives to Labour.
Three key points for a Brown bounce
1. Highlight time as Chancellor
This can act as a positive or a negative for Gordon Brown. On the one hand, he is viewed as one of the most successful post war chancellors the UK has seen. Overseeing the independence of the Bank of England and the longest period of economic growth on record (from 1997 to 2006 the UK economy averaged 2.8% annual growth). However, Gordon Brown could also be credited with leading the country into recession, and creating 66 new types of tax.
Gordon Brown is still viewed by many as the best man to lead the country out of economic instability. He can use his experience and the ten years he spent as Chancellor as a credible argument as to why Labour should stay in power. George Osborne, the relatively inexperienced Shadow Chancellor has had his economic credentials called into question on a number of occasions. Experience in running the UK’s economy is certainly something the Labour party are not short on.
2. Emotion and charisma
The Labour backbenchers have called for Gordon Brown to appear more ‘emotional’ for some time now. One of David Cameron’s key strengths is his ability to appeal to the electorate on an emotional level. It now looks like Gordon Brown is starting to take this approach more seriously; a recent example was his interview with Piers Morgan on ITV. Gordon Brown has always been reluctant to talk about his family, and use them in photo opportunities in the same way as David Cameron. However, he openly spoke of the death of his daughter Jennifer in 2002, and appeared close to tears. He spoke of how he fell in love with his wife Sarah, and talked about his family and ‘normal’ upbringing. Gordon Brown has always claimed he is a substance-over-style kind of guy, the complete opposite to his predecessor Tony Blair. Brown is now adapting to presenting himself as a likeable guy with substance.
In a YouGov survey for the Times on 6th October 2007, the key difference between Gordon Brown and David Cameron in the polls was ‘charisma’. The question:
“Thinking about Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which of the following qualities do you think he has? And now thinking about David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, which of the following qualities do you think he has?”
1% of people interviewed stated that Gordon Brown had ‘charisma’, compared with 34% for David Cameron.
This was the largest division of opinion between the two men, and suggests peripheral analysis of body language is a dominant feature in political communication. Gordon Brown needs to try to appear charismatic, yet if the media gets the tiniest sniff that it is staged, Gordon Brown’s credibility will again be called into question. A classic example of this is the infamous ‘smile’ YouTube video.
3. Appealing to ‘middle Britain’ and ‘ordinary families’
This is one element the Conservative party struggle with. David Cameron and George Osborne’s privileged upbringings have often been called into question and have a number of negative connotations associated with them. The question often asked is whether David Cameron and the Conservative party can connect with ordinary families from more deprived backgrounds.
In the March 2010 YouGov poll, a question was asked whether David Cameron can empathise with ‘ordinary’ families. Only 25% said he could, compared to 35% of people that agreed Gordon Brown can understand problems faced by “people like me”.
The infamous Bullingdon Club photo may come back to haunt ‘Dave’ Cameron in the near future and no matter how hard he tries to reposition the Conservative party, the mere fact he went to Eton and Oxford may act against him. Consequently Gordon Brown could just win another five years in office.