I had a piece a couple of months ago in Market Leader on why political parties represented a particular sort of brand, and what that meant for their freedom of movement. I can’t attach the article here (Market Leader is paywalled), but with the election in full swing it seems worth sharing a couple of extracts.
The Market Leader article was partly a rewrite of my post here in the autumn on the long-term decline of the Conservative party, but I had more space, so could extend the analysis to the Labour Party, and also deepen the thinking.
Political parties as ‘deep brands’
The core idea in the piece was that the Conservatives had won in the 1970s and 1980s by repositioning themselves around three different ideas that created irreconcilable tensions. The ideas: neoliberalism, English traditionalism, and legacy one-nation Conservatism. The result: short-run wins, long-term problems (as a reminder, they couldn’t win a majority when running against a party that has been in power for 13 years and was led by Gordon Brown.) But the Conservatives’ problems need to be seen in the context of political parties as a whole, which, were party politics a market category, would be tanking.
[T]he numbers, for all the UK’s political parties except the Greens, are shocking. The polling organisation ComRes from time to time runs questions asking about the “favourability of voters towards both parties and politicians”.
Its data for the end of September 2014 can be seen in the table below. (Some of these numbers have changed in the past six months, but not substantially). This is probably as close as political brands come to Net Promoter Scores, and no one scores positively. Labour and Conservative are both running in the negative mid-teens, and some of the ratings for individual politicians are dismal.
One of the reasons for this is that political parties can be thought of as “deep brands”; brands which are not about consumption but about identity. Churches might have similar resonance, and – at least for men – so do sports teams, especially football teams. While brand managers like to talk these days about how their consumers own their brands, they would be terrified if they actually thought this was true. But for deep brands, which adherents associate with their sense of self, the supporters do own the brand.
The consequence for political managers is that while it is possible to refresh the brand, it is not possible to reposition it without losing your base.
Fewer, angrier members
The history of the Labour Party over the past quarter of a century is a good example. After losing four elections in a row between 1979 and 1992, the party rebranded and repositioned itself. Some of this was entirely cosmetic: the party symbol became a red rose, for example. Arguably Labour also ended up trying to triangulate between irreconcilable objectives: “business compliant,” as former MP Alan Simpson put it in a recent article in Red Pepper; pro-equality of opportunity (but not much in favour of equality); while still adhering to some residual ideas about social justice. Again, from the article in Market Leader:
[T]he repositioning as New Labour – one of the oldest branding tricks in the world and one that is rarely successful – alienated many of its traditional supporters. In the short term, this did not matter, since it attracted enough swing voters to deliver substantial majorities, even if these were exaggerated (as were Thatcher’s) by the nature of the British first-past-the-post system. When those swing voters swung away again, the party was left with fewer, angrier, members.
And we see the consequences of that still playing out in the Labour Party’s current underwhelming performance. Half of its front bench still hanker after those New Labour election results, the first time Labour had won three general elections on the trot, without fully understanding the price that was paid by its brand. Certainly the term ‘New Labour’ is rarely used these days in admiration.
Ed Miliband was elected as leader largely because he understood the need to take the party back towards its pre-New Labour positioning, while acknowledging the need for the form of that positioning to be refreshed. The few occasions on which he has looked like a leader have been when he has behaved in that way – for example in attacking News International at an early stage in the hacking scandal or challenging the prices and profits of the electricity utilities sector.
Telling different stories
But this is all part of a wider problem, about the way in which neoliberalism has captured the political class, not just in the UK but across Europe. Richard Seymour, for example, has a sharp piece in the London Review of Books on how a pro-austerity Labour Party has created a double bind for itself: it loses in the long term, he argues, whether or not it gets into power as a result of next month’s election. Greece, and increasingly Spain, are warnings of what happens to parties in the political mainstream as a result. The same is becoming true in the UK, and not just in Scotland. One more article extract:
The way in which the austerity agenda has captured both main parties means that they are increasingly undifferentiated … The Westminster ‘political class’
seems remote from voters. And the parties that are gaining members at present – the Greens, UKIP, the SNP – in their different ways offer different stories to voters. Deep brands need to connect with an individual’s sense of self.
The history of political parties suggests they never completely disappear. But they can become less relevant. And the speed at which they become less relevant is never faster than in the decade or so after a financial crisis, when politics is forced to realign itself to match the changed economic world it finds itself in.