Monday, 1 February 2010

A Spanner in the Works?

Having watched Caroline Spelman fail to sell Conservative policy on future changes in taxation for married couples on Questiontime a few weeks ago, I pricked up my ears earlier when Michael Gove popped up on the R4 Today programme earlier today to do the same thing.

 In Rugby terms, this was what might be termed 'a hospital pass'...

Over the last months the message went out that the Conservatives want greater recognition for Marriage in the taxation system - the underpinning logic (or presumption) being that kids from married families achieve more in later life, suffer less from social problems, make a more positive contribution etc etc.

Michael Gove was being interviewed with the author of some research into the subject, which the interviewer told us had failed to find a link. In other words, it would seem that the presumption that the policy is founded on, is groundless - so, it would seem, the policy is pointless.

In one crucial area, the Labour party are hugely outperforming the Conservatives - Selling Policy.

They achieve this, both in terms of selling their own policy, but also in analysing competitive policy, finding and then exploiting weaknesses. They consistently re-spin Conservative policy with small twisted nuances or inferences, in order to sell against it. They then deliver the 'line to take' out to their troops (MPs) who are well trained in the process of promulgating it.

The result is that sound Conservative policy can be perceived by the electorate, at best, ineffective or, at worst, negative and damaging. This policy area is a good example. Labour have attacked the central premise - that married couples create a better environment for kids than single parents by casting it as being without foundation and slightly prejudiced against poor disadvantaged hard-working single parents. They have then gone on to cast Conservative policy as being crude. 'So you want to pay people to be married and you think that will magically make them better parents huh?? Er why, prove it?'.

Are they right? - irrelevant - at least to the point of this post anyway.

The point is that something in the Conservative machine is either badly broken or is absent. The quality of front-bench media performances has been diabolically poor over the last few months in particular. But is it that the individuals are no-good or not up-to-it?

 Maybe, in some isolated cases - but they can't all be useless. Even George Osborne made a bit of a mess of his interview with Sophie Raworth on Sunday – a solid consistent performer tripped up here. So what's going on?

The more I watch and listen, the more convinced I become that generally Labour are simply out-selling the Conservatives. Their back-office machine is delivering their salespeople with a more effective, more substantial, better worked out tool-set than the Conservatives have - so understandably their troops are winning. Despite their appalling track-record!

 Successful Conservative performances are sadly dependant on individually excellent performances. Michael Gove again this morning, proved his consistent ability to do this. He was handed a tricky interview and he pulled out all the stops. Tactically it was superb.
  • He charmed, praised and complimented his ‘opponent’ making it virtually impossible to attack him.
  • He changed the emphasis of the interview away from the sticky central point – although he did have to launch a mini verbal bombardment to sustain it.
  • He got the last word. (it’s not what you say, it’s what you leave them with)
My first reaction over the last few months has been to rail at the individually poor performances. But there’s no point at looking at it like this. No amount of wish-full thinking will turn the whole front-bench Conservative team quickly into Michael Goves, or William Hagues – brilliant, experienced media performers.

Back to the Rugby analogy. This morning, Michael found himself with the ball, managed to avoid an almost inevitable tackle and made a little bit of ground. He didn’t score but he skilfully avoided a big body blow and turned a situation that looked like it was one in which he was going to take a hit, into a small victory.

But the whole team needs to be capable of this kind of performance to win the game, and eventually (but not long to go) the championship, and it will not happen in the short-term by depending on them suddenly miraculously developing the skills of the brilliant individual player. 

The front-bench team need some high-intensity coaching. A conveyor belt of tactical information that they can use in every game, in every situation. They need to know, not just what every policy is, they need to understand it’s features, it’s benefits, it’s weaknesses = how to sell it.

They need analysis on how Labour will attack them, how to undermine the attacks and how to use the oppositions weaknesses to attack them and beat them back and win. I am still partly using my sporting analogy but actually it’s more like a sales-team. In fact it’s exactly like a sales-team.

If a business wants to succeed, be stable and be successful in the mid and long term it can’t rely on one or two unsupported brilliant individual salespeople. Instead the business must create an infrastructure where it can employ good people and provide them with the tools and the coaching (e.g briefing and role-playing) to achieve excellent results. Then they can move forward along their entire front – bench.

A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago to think of the last really good Conservative media performance I had seen. I had to go back a few months to think of one. I was shocked at the thought. Is it any wonder that the polls seem to be languishing in hung-parliament territory?

Is the product wrong?, are the people wrong? (are the Labour front-bench anywhere near the same quality as the Conservative front bench – answer - no they are not) So what’s the problem? Or to put it another way, what can you realistically change enough to make enough of a difference in an acceptable time-frame?

Actually, just the process.

A general point - Sometimes it's worth chucking a spanner into the works - because most machines can use one when they need fixing..


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