Pondering the 1980s Stewart Lee observed that culture itself seemed to hate Thatcher. Musicians hated Thatcher. Comedians hated Thatcher. Writers hated Thatcher. There were even aliens from the future in 2000AD comic strips who hated Thatcher. And yet she still managed to get elected. Three times.
On May 8th the left were again confronted by the gap between the professed beliefs of the cultural mood and ballot box choices. For the future-junkies of the PR world there are a number of lessons to be gleaned from the political class’s failure to read the crowd. While Cameron’s critics may not be the vituperative Maggie bashers of yesteryear Lionel Shriver writes of the persistence of scorn towards the blue voter. Picking up on a certain strand of Guardianista contempt for those who vote according to their tax band, Shriver is perhaps writing with a North London type in mind. But it’s a point that intersects more broadly with the shock felt by the left. Although social media was not singularly owned by Labour –UKIP and other right wing groups thrive in the Us Vs Them combat of twitter and online forums- it did function as an echo chamber that reinforced confidence and blocked out those to the right of centre who were unmoved by Miliband.
The case of the Tories in Shoreditch clothing is not a failure of nerves on the part of the wet centre but the result of politics as a whole becoming dominated by PR trickery and brand image. Both Labour and the Conservatives drove campaigns that shielded their leaders from themselves. On May 7th our choices were as much aesthetic as political: staid stewardship Vs a geeky sexy newness. In this context it was possible to feel affinity towards an image while not favouring the policies. Miliband had celebrities and online fandom, Cameron had Tom Conti (which partly fitted Miliband’s accusation that the Tories want to take Britain back to the 1980s). Labour stood for progressive causes, tackling inequality and saving the NHS whereas Crosby-whipped CCHQ was sticking to single line: economy, economy, economy.
The pollsters and pundits were caught out but marketers should recognise this split between affinity and actual consumption. You can see it most strongly in the way people talk about which airlines they use. In one survey 70% of customers who said they have an affinity with British Airways actually fly most regularly with budget airlines. From the perspective of a Ryan Air there is little incentive in improving brand affinity with customers who will fly with them anyway due to the cheaper rates. Cameron might be more genteel but he has some of Michael O’Leary’s blunt realism; no matter what stick he got from the cultural establishment it is policies not style that most voters will be contemplating when their pencils hover over ballot paper.