Theresa May’s Brave New World

27th April 2017

In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1934 futuristic, dystopian novel We (the precursor to 1984 and Brave New World), election day in the fictional OneState is known as the “Day of Unanimity”.

“This has no resemblance to the disorderly, unorganised elections in ancient times, when they couldn’t even tell before the election how it would come out,” the narrator tells us. “The history of OneState does not know of a single instance when so much as one voice dared to violate the majestic union of that glorious day.”

Those outside the UK may be surprised to learn that there was something of Zamyatin in UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent surprise announcement that there would be a General Election on 8 June.

“At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division… Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country,” May said on the steps of 10 Downing Street.

Only with a strong, stable – and unified – political class, she argued, would she able to negotiate the best Brexit deal for Britain – the so-called “red, white and blue Brexit”.

Elections are not generally seen as diffusers of uncertainty: witness the financial markets’ recent relief at Emmanuel Macron’s first round victory in the French presidential elections.

But the more you look at May’s decision, the more it makes perfect sense.

In her speech, she railed against the roadblocks she said had been thrown in her way by the Opposition parties and the unelected House of Lords. With more than a whiff of populism, she referred to division in Westminster.

But with hindsight, it is clear that the real driver for the decision lies in her own Conservative Party, the ineluctable Brexit timetable now unleashed by the triggering of Article 50, and May’s formidable standing in the opinion polls.

The UK Government has a working majority of just 17, leaving it vulnerable to rebellions from those with extreme views on the form of Brexit Britain should take.

The next scheduled General Election was due to take place in spring 2020. The two-year deadline for the Brexit negotiations will fall in 2019: a potentially awkward moment for the PM to have to persuade a fractious House of Commons that a good deal has been obtained.​

And most opinion polls give the Conservatives a near-unprecedented 20-point lead over an ailing Labour Party under leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The temptation to cut and run, and secure her own mandate, was too great, and most are expecting Mrs May to be returned with an increased majority – with some experts predicting it will shoot up to 170.

So that is why, after a General Election in 2015, and an EU Referendum in 2016, UK voters will yet again be heading to a nationwide poll in 2017.

What does this all mean for communications professionals? What will the campaign teach us about the latest tools and techniques of political persuasion that are unleashed with such force during elections?

In 2015 and 2016, Weber Shandwick undertook ground-breaking research into which channels were most effective in swaying people’s voting intentions.

In 2016, we found Facebook to be the most influential social media platform in the EU Referendum campaign, with 40% of those who had engaged with Facebook saying it influenced their views.

Overall, most influential were TV and radio debates, with an influence score of 51%, online news at 50%, print news at 46%, TV and radio news at 45% and family and friends at 43%.

The 2017 General Election offers the ideal opportunity to revisit this data, and to track the efficacy of the channel options that communications strategists have at their disposal.

This is where communications and campaign planning meets UK laws on election spending, which place strict caps on what can be spent by a candidate in any individual constituency during the official campaign window. (The Electoral Commission has opened an investigation into campaign spending by the Conservatives in 2015 and by the Leave.EU campaign during the 2016 Referendum.)

The irony of these investigations is that there are often looking into campaign spending on activities – leafleting, posters, “battle buses” – which leave the public profoundly underwhelmed, according to our data.

The new line item in campaign budgets that does merit deeper scrutiny, however, is the emerging trend for the political parties to spend money on paid social media advertising, especially targeted Facebook advertising.

Considered by communications strategists to be highly effective in reaching the public, it remains far from clear how this spending should be treated in the statutory regulation of campaign finances. What is clear is that there will be a lot of it about in the UK in the next six weeks, as the political parties seek to reach voters below the line.

Oh, by the way, the 2016 Weber Shandwick poll also found the public leaning 46-40 in favour of Brexit. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!