Ed Miliband's energy price freeze was one of his finest moments. Photo: Getty
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Why haven't Labour's other proposals matched the success of their energy price freeze plan?

The lessons in communication and research political parties can learn from how Ed Miliband's energy price freeze announcement played out.

Energy prices have been back in the news recently as Ed Miliband’s fabled freeze started to thaw under the heat of changing oil prices and condemnation from various business leaders. Of course so much fuss has been made of the rhetorical conversion from “freeze” to “cap” because the policy had previously been one of Labour’s major wins this parliament. Their opponents are now smiling as it appears to have fallen apart.

Economics and the merit of the idea aside however, the announcement surrounding the energy price freeze does still represent an interesting case study of Labour effectively combining campaign communications and research.

When Miliband first announced the idea on that sunny September afternoon in Brighton in 2013, he took just about everyone by surprise. It had not leaked nor been briefed and came as a genuine shock not just to the public, but also to those in the media and the know. Labour had clearly done their research, with an insider memorably reported as enthusing that their focus groups had shown support for the idea “off the charts”. ComRes had also may have played a part, having polled on energy prices for BBC Radio 5Live’s Energy Day earlier in the month – and found a fairly ugly mood among consumers. Resentment towards energy companies about labyrinthine tariffs, seemingly endless price increases and poor customer service had been well known for years but seldom activated politically, at least in this Parliament.

This changed with Miliband’s pledge. The Labour news grid appeared, on this occasion, to light up, with Miliband and Caroline Flint touring the news rooms, followed by an article a few days later by Douglas Alexander claiming the idea to be the intellectual descendant of New Labour’s popular windfall tax on energy companies in 1997.

Despite focus groups not tending to produce charts, public polling soon proved the Labour strategist’s point as levels of support for the plan were shown reaching astonishing levels of up to 80 per cent, which in turn took the story into another news cycle. Here at ComRes we first knew of the pledge’s success not when we saw the numbers, but when various clients asked to move the focus of their regular polling away from the upcoming Conservative Conference as had been planned, and towards testing attitudes towards the energy price freeze instead. Newspaper columns were filled with debates about the policy throughout the rest of the autumn. Radio talk shows spent weeks discussing it.

Curiously though, as some mentioned at the time, was that the next general election looked as if it might swing on the seemingly negligible issue of an £80 annual change to energy bills. It paled in comparison to other issues of the day such as the war in Syria, youth unemployment or a public debt running above £1tn. The key to the appeal of the energy price freeze though, was not how much it affected people, but how many people felt it would affect them – even if only negligibly.

Having proposals with a wide appeal may appear obvious, but stands in complete contrast to the strategy the party then took ahead of its disappointing European election campaign last year. Here Labour had a series of announcements lined up, all connected by their cost of living theme: extending free childcare, capping rent increases and creating a state-owned corporation to compete against private companies for rail franchises in an attempt to bring down commuting costs.

Also linking these issues was that they were meant to be low incidence but high salience proposals: only a small proportion of the population would be affected, but those people would benefit in a big way. As can be seen from ComRes polling at the time, although relatively few people were concerned about the cost of housing (23 per cent), public transport (16 per cent) and childcare (10 per cent), they were all issues which clearly had obvious segments of the population interested in them (renters, commuters, parents of young children).

(Click on graph to enlarge).

The thinking behind this appeared to be a desire to emulate Barack Obama’s successful Presidential re-election campaign in 2012, where voters were apparently delivered hyper-targeted messages focusing on the issues they cared about most. It was also perhaps indirectly influenced by the current corporate Steve Jobs-inspired vogue for niche products, following Apple’s ascent through a relentless focus on quality, good design and for many years, catering to a fairly small but incredibly loyal segment of the market (The Economist and Moleskin being other commonly cited examples of this).

Unlike Labour though, Obama’s campaign had a billion dollars and the most sophisticated digital campaign infrastructure ever and thus was supposedly able to deliver these localised messages. One might also question how influential this approach actually was or whether the election result simply reflected President Obama’s superiority over a gaffe-prone, fairly middle-of-the-road opponent.

In any case, with Labour’s digital strategy focused on mobilising volunteers rather than winning the hearts of the general public, it relies on other media to deliver its message to voters.

This made it very difficult to construct an effective communications campaign around its “low incidence” pledges at the European elections. The ideas likely went down well in focus groups among key demographics but gained little traction when released during the campaign.

Whereas large numbers of people felt resonance with the energy price freeze, relatively few felt the same about rent increase caps or expanded childcare. This meant that beyond the original announcements, Labour received little media attention for their proposals. As they were of interest to only few of the press’s readers and the broadcasters’ viewers, there was little incentive for them to produce more content on the issues. The lack of traction for the proposals, together with Ed Miliband’s mixed popularity with his own side, also meant few MPs were willing to keep repeating the lines about them and that message discipline broke down. All of which undoubtedly contributed to an underwhelming second place European election finish with 26 per cent of the vote. Even now, there is precious little chance of stopping a random person on the street and their knowing about any of Labour’s pledges on railways or rents.

So what are the lessons? First, don’t forget the medium: however attractive a policy is, it will only be popular if people know about it, which means that you need a way of telling them. This requires having something to offer the people you want to carry your message.

Second, follow a strategy that marries research and communications expertise, with clear messaging based on robust evidence. There are plenty of communications professionals who try passing a finger in the air as insight, but data on a page also has its limitations. Research should be translated into actionable findings and clear guiding principles which can then be combined with political knowledge to form a comprehensive and coherent strategy.

Which just leaves us with the general election. This all suggests it will not be won and lost on niche issues, but on general perceptions and feelings about one or two major issues which affect everyone. There are likely to be related to the NHS, personal leadership qualities and one of the main variants of economic trust (growth, proceeds of growth, cost of living). And, as Ed Miliband knows from his experience of the energy price cap issue, the winner will need more than a little luck.

Adam Ludlow is a consultant at ComRes

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times