We look at how political reputations are won and lost and how this has impacted the General Election campaign
The American political commentator Frank Luntz can’t call it. The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn calls it “an ugly baby competition”, while predictions of social media dominance seem a little premature.
What everyone does agree on, however, is that the fate of Mr Cameron’s career (as he reminded us last week) – as well as those of Messrs Miliband and Clegg – hang in the balance as we find ourselves just hours away from the closest general election in living memory.
Which is why, over the past few weeks, we’ve been served up a diet of forthright hand gestures, streetwise expressions, “Red Line” promises and dress down informality as our political leaders, together with constituency candidates and yesteryear’s heavyweights, strain every sinew to secure your approval.
And yet, despite millions of pounds spent on advertising and strategic communications advice, the latest Poll of Polls puts Labour and the Tories neck and neck, with each party failing to land the decisive PR punch which has proved so elusive during this campaign.
Despite Ed Miliband having performed far better than both political commentators and the Tories initially expected him to, his approval rating is still only -17. It’s a great improvement on where he started, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. It seems that no amount of Milifandom, “don’t underestimate me” TV appeal and hugely impressive street-to-street canvassing by what must now be an exhausted Labour Party machine, can fundamentally change the public perception of Ed as an Islington geek with a poor grasp of economics. Witness his grilling on Question Time the other night.
David Cameron fared no better. Although enjoying an approval rating of just -1 (yes folks, we really don’t trust our politicians, do we?), “Call Me Dave” has still found it hard to shake off his Etonian past and the Conservative’s wider reputational millstone of being the “nasty party”. No amount of shirt-wearing-last-minute-enthusiasm has really convinced us that there isn’t an element of complacent entitlement at the heart of the modern Tory psyche. And for you and me, just emerging from a recession originally caused by unregulated financial greed, we’ve found it hard to find and identify with the heart and soul of modern Conservatism. Add in the widening gap between rich and poor, the increased use of food banks and the left’s innate belief in the moral high ground, and you quickly see why the Prime Minister has had a reputational challenge on his hands, regardless of any positive economic news.
As for poor old Nick Clegg – try as hard as he might have to convince people that without him we’d be in the kind of mess Greece has found itself in – his approval rating has fallen through the floor and he has been seen, even by his own supporters, as untrustworthy and a betrayer. However much we might argue that Jesus required Judus to betray him, Judus still gets a hard wrap two thousand years later. Let’s hope history is kinder to Mr Clegg.
But if the three main leaders didn’t make much reputational headway, the same is not true of the other key players. Nicola Sturgeon – despite not standing for a Westminster seat and heading up the losing party from the Scottish referendum – was the poster girl of this election, admired and feared in equal measure and receiving considerable reputational gain with virtually every appearance. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are, of course, the marmite politicians who added colour and excitement to the campaign, both looking as if they are making it up on the spot. This anti-PR pose (and it is a pose, believe me) creates different reputational outcomes, depending on the context, the audience and, frankly, how silly or otherwise the comment is. What’s one person’s honesty is another person’s fatuous oversimplification.
So what can we conclude? Reputation is both a fair weather friend and a stubborn burden, hard earned and easily lost. Our deeply rooted political beliefs and prejudices, framed by our parents and influenced by those we admire and gravitate towards, still fundamentally condition how most of us receive general election campaigning. If we are up for persuasion, or hear/see something which has an overriding impact upon us, then our views might significantly change. But if we are firm in our beliefs, or feel our vote won’t matter anyway, we are far less likely to be influenced.
But of course it’s not as simple as that. Some people vote for party, some for local issues, others for which leader would represent Britain on the world stage. Some will forget to vote or spoil their ballot paper while others might have a last minute change of heart due to something they heard or read that day. Which is why, at the end of the day, each of the parties will keep fighting for your vote and your approval with every breath they have right up to the finishing line. And that is why, even if the polls continue to show stubborn indifference to PR, no amount of fatalistic analysis will ever convince any political leader to refrain from one last spin of the dice.