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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.