The leaders’ debate might be more important than you thought

Written by Stephen Day on 2 April 2015 in Opinion
New polling data underlines how smart leadership communications are key to election success

Before it has even got underway, the leaders’ debate has been far from a shining example of how to stir the political imagination of the UK electorate. The debate about the debate will have bored the socks off the majority of voters; and it is at present unclear whether tonight’s political jamboree will have any lasting impact on the outcome of 7th May.

That notwithstanding, ahead of the debate, this morning we released the results of the first Burson-Marsteller/Penn Schoen Berland pre-election poll.

The headline findings are encouraging and reveal some of the levers that will need to be pushed and pulled on the doorstep, online and on advertising hoardings across the nation as we enter this intense campaigning period.

What is clear is that the self-anointed “Twitter Election” will give rise to much spewing forth on social media by the commentariat, and result in even more conjecture and hypothesis. It remains to be seen whether online chatter tonight will be at all reflective of engagement with the debate itself; and ITV ratings figures released on Friday will be an intriguing indication of the impact of the broadcasters’ attempts to invigorate the British public (in spite of Lynton Crosby’s best efforts). If ITV can break the 3 million mark set by Channel 4 and Sky, then they’ll have done well.

The bigger issue at hand is whether the public is really interested in the politicking dominating the front end of their newspapers over the next six weeks.

And if not, the question remains: how can election strategists turn on the electorate ahead of 7th May?

Our polling shows that two thirds of the population say that they are interested in politics (67%). A good start. However – and here’s the rub - this interest does not necessarily convert into participation – with less than half of Brits saying that they are excited at the prospect of voting on 7th May (44%).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poll shows that interest in politics increases with age.  But contrastingly, the numbers show that excitement in voting is inversely proportional to the amount of grey hair one has.

What, therefore, should the parties being doing and saying to stoke fire in the bellies of the UK’s enfranchised?

As part of the same poll, we tested the biggest influences on how people vote: specifically, the profile of the party leader; the role of an issue that voters feel strongly about; or whether a party shares a voter’s values.

The findings are revealing. Amongst the population as a whole, we found that over half of Brits (52%) feel that that the biggest influence on their vote is the values of the party, rather than hard policy issues (which polled at 27%).

This would suggest that voting preference is less swung by the day-to-day cut and thrust of an election campaign, and more with identification with the principles that underlay the party’s ethos.

Drill down into the demographics, and we find some compelling disparities.  An emphasis on values is much less keenly felt amongst the 18-34 age bracket (40%), than those aged 55+ (61%).  A third of this younger age group (34%) place their emphasis on hard policy issues, compared to a quarter of 35-54 year old (24%) and 55+ year olds (23%).

These numbers make stark reading for party pollsters, and raise questions over the extent to which strategists can make any material difference to their electoral prospects in a truncated campaign period.

There is, nonetheless, a very fertile political space between hard policy issues and so-called values. Analyse responses to the more contentious and emotive policy areas and how they drive voting intention, and we begin to identify the nub of the secret to electoral success on 7th May.

Our poll looked at reactions to a number of polarising political issues. Over half of Britons (57%) stated that they would be more likely to vote for a party that pledged to stop immigration (versus 23% who said they would be less likely). Half (50%) stated that they would be more likely if a party pledged to renationalise the railways (versus 17% who said they would be less likely); and almost half (48%) stated that they would be more likely if a party pledged to abolish tuition fees (versus 19% who said they would be less likely).

So as we look ahead to the launch of manifestos, a keen focus on the most emotive policy areas, those that voters identify clear values with, will be key to winning both the head and heart vote.

The final piece of the electoral puzzle is the purveyor of the message: candidates or leaders. We asked our 1000 respondents whether the performance of their local MP is the most important factor in determining their vote or that of the party leader. The response is very clearly skewed: over two thirds (69%) identified the party leaders; just less than a third (31%) look to their local MP.

Bringing the data together, our poll therefore shows that smart leadership communications could win the General Election.

Boosting the profile of the party leaders and focusing on head and heart policy issues, by identifying the policy areas that stir the emotive and rational faculties of the UK electorate, will swing the outcome on 7th May.

And if this is the case, events this evening could set the stage for this battle for hearts and minds.

It could be worth staying in tonight after all.


Stephen Day is managing director and head of UK public affairs at Burson-Marsteller.

Penn Schoen Berland interviewed a representative sample of 1,000 adults aged 18+ across Great Britain. Interviews were conducted online 6-11 March 2015. Data are weighted to match the profile of the population.

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