Fighting the last (political) war

There is an old cliché about Generals, they always tend to fight the last war, not the current one. As we are now officially at the start of yet another political campaign, it seems the Labour Party might be making the same mistake.


In 2017, the Conservatives re-fought the 2015 campaign.  “Chaos with….” and attention on who the friends of the Labour Leader were and what that said about them.  Although I would argue that the alleged friends that had Ed Miliband in their pocket weren’t as bad as the friends Jeremy Corbyn had actually memorialised but the point stands.  What worked in 2015, most definitely did not in 2017 as, frankly, voters decided not to care whom Jeremy Corbyn might or might not have been friends with.

In 2017, Labour most definitely did not re-fight the 2015 election, more like one from the 1970s.  Gone was the slick stage-managed events replaced by old-style rallies and enthusiasm.  People like me sighed or laughed, “this will never work.”  And, to an extent, it didn’t.  Labour didn’t win the election but they did win the campaign, albeit a pyrrhic victory.  And they did it by fighting their own war and not the last.  This might have been partly due to the players in the party being almost entirely new after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader – they didn’t come with scars or a point to prove that they had been right all along.

This time, however, initial signs are that the tables have turned.  Labour are going in to this election with almost glee at being between 9 to 15 points down because “remember what happened last time.”  This time, just one more push is required and we will be in Berlin (or Downing Street).  They are assuming that the 2019 election will be just like 2017, as voters flock to the Red Flag and the Glorious Future promised.

This time the difference is that Labour does have people who led the 2017 campaign and want to show they were right all along and their plan is the one true masterplan.

What the Labour Party must be weary of is that the battleground, as well as the political and actual weather over it, will be very different this time.  The question is on which side the debris from apparent voter anger falls and how radioactive it is.  Get it wrong and Nuclear Winter beckons.

The climate of your audience

In watching some of the videos from the last few climate change protests in Edinburgh, London and elsewhere, it was easy to see some examples of good campaigning and effective stunts for media attention. A large Octopus is never not going to get you coverage and neither is a fire engine spraying an old building red. Even protests at London City Airport can get you the kind of attention you want.Graeme Downie, Orbit Director

With that kind of stunt, you are going to be asked for your more substantial views and reasoning, to showcase your knowledge, agenda and programme to make real change and grow an actual movement. In short, it creates the opportunity but the stunt should not be the end in itself.

But, as with many campaigns, the stunt becomes the objective and you feel you have to “do something new” and “go further” rather than looking at why the first thing worked and what it enabled you to do.

The footage this morning of commuters in London dragging XR protestors off a tube, following the blocking of train stations and bus stations are where protestors have lost sight of their audience and purpose. The people being inconvenienced are, afterall, doing what XR wants to see more of – using public transport. Because of public transport conditions, they are also likely to support more money being spent on it to improve the service.

I would be willing to bet that if you polled these commuters they would also support more effective action to tackle climate change. These are the people who agree with you and you want to bring to your campaign. They are your audience, why are you abusing them and treating them as the enemy? Sure, you will get coverage and attention but it will not grow your support nor will it advance your objectives, quite the opposite.

This is common in PR and political campaigns, the base or client demands more but forgets the long-term objective and who the audience is. At Orbit, this is something we combat by asking clients to focus on three simple questions at all times during campaigns and if a particular activity is going to help our longer-term objective. Who is our audience? How do we reach them? What do we want them to do?

Activity for the sake of activity may look appealing but forget your audience at your peril if you want to achieve anything.