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The General Election battle lines have been drawn but can marketing make a difference in just 7 weeks?


By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

April 18, 2017 | 8 min read

Prime minister Theresa May today (18 March) called a surprise general election on June 8. With time not on their side, have the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats learned their lessons from elections gone by to execute a seamless campaign in just seven weeks?

general election

General Election 2017

A general election held less than two-months after it was called is, commentators have speculated, one of the shortest notice periods in living memory. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 sets the interval between general elections at five years and so the next election was not due until 2020.

Despite the shock announcement, already the battle lines for the ensuing marketing campaigns have been drawn. Brexit is going to be the main campaign arena over the coming months but unlike past elections, it won’t be won with facts and policies. Rather it’s about sentiment and convincing voters of who they should trust to lead them through the coming years.

Speaking to The Drum Michael Moszynski, chief executive of London Advertising and who also ran the Conservatives' 2005 election campaign, said this is a very different kind of election to those we’ve witnessed in the past.

“It’s going to be about do you trust Jeremy Corbin versus Theresa May who has achieved in her rankings a very strong view in the public. Positioning of what would happen in the negotiations – there is no prospect of that. This is about how big the Conservative majority will be.”

For the Conservatives, convincing voters that it is the only party capable of steering the country through the next decade is the obvious ploy. May suggested that a vote was necessary as she prepared to negotiate the UK’s exit from the European Union, discussions which were being undermined by divisions in Westminster. “Certainty and stability” is what the prime minister is promising after June 8, should she remain in power.

Her credibility as the leader to achieve this has been shaped fiercely over the past year under the guidance of director of communications Katie Perrior. As Sam Coates, deputy political editor at The Times told Sky News in wake of the announcement, unlike her “glitzy” predecessors Tony Blair and David Cameron, Theresa May has styled herself in as “Britain’s first consciously uncool prime minster” and she has been using that to her electoral advantage.

In today’s speech, May repeatedly asserted a vote for her was a vote to “get the job done,” adding: “It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or a weak and unstable coalition government.”

On the other side, the Liberal Democrats - as if it had some crystal ball for what was to come - set out its stall last month ahead of local elections when it declared that it was the party for the 48% who voted Remain last year and as consequently emerged as the party with the clearest proposition going into the general election.

“Vote Liberal Democrat in the general election to stop a hard Brexit” it proclaimed swiftly after the date was set, indicating that its campaigning between now and June will be aimed squarely at convincing voters of its ability to pull the plug on negotiations altogether.

And then there is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, a party still split on the decision to leave the EU despite the leader forcing the party to vote for Article 50.

The divisive figurehead failed to mention Brexit in his statement responding to the news, instead saying: “Labour will be offering the country an effective alternative to a government that has failed to rebuild the economy, delivered falling living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS.”

Tight deadlines mean digital media could win budgets

So, with a mere 50 days until the vote, ad strategies are being hastily drawn up and the tight turnaround inevitably means that digital will emerge as the channel of choice for time-poor planners.

In 2015, the Conservative party spent £1.2m of its £15.6m budget for the 2015 General Election on Facebook campaigns, while Labour allocated just over £16K to the platform from its £12m budget.

Google, meanwhile, commanded just over £300,000 from the Conservatives (including the price for its YouTube pre-rolls) compared to Labour's much smaller billing of just £371.54.

“The point is pertinent and the reason that digital media will probably take the lead in terms of campaigning is not necessarily to do with some huge zeitgeist, it’s got more to do with timing and planning. So, by nature it’s easier with a quicker turnaround and will be more flexible,” suggested Kevin Chesters, strategy chief at Ogilvy & Mather.

Given the strong words the government has had for Google in wake of The Times’ expose on advertising appearing next to extremist content, it remains to be seen how quick the respective parties will be to invest spend into the online ad behemoth.

Meanwhile, for all the criticism Facebook received for aiding the spread of ‘fake news’ during the US presidential election this will prove to be an opportune time to prove to the masses that it can be a reliable source of political coverage.

“This will be the first early test of the commitment Google and Facebook have made against fake news,” continued Chesters, although his caveat is that general British politics “tends to always be slightly less extreme” than its transatlantic cousin.

“What is interesting is that it’s probably the first election in UK to take place in ‘post-filter bubble world’,” he added. “After Brexit and Trump people are aware of fake news and the way platform’s algorithms work.”

Engaging the youth

While the coming weeks will focus largely on Brexit, and by extension persuading the voters in the Leave and Remain camps, there is a tranche of the UK electorate that once again risks being forgotten.

According to Dr James Sloam, co-Director of Centre for European Politics, the younger generation (those aged 18-24), have been loathed to turn out to elections in their masses, which has become somewhat of a staple trend of recent general elections

Turnout among young people has fallen from over 60% in the early 1990s to an average of 40% over the previous three general elections (2001, 2005 and 2010).

"The potential for a lack of digital communications in this election given its short timeframe goes hand in hand with us missing a huge tranche of younger voters yet again,” suggested Katy Woodrow Hill, strategy director of youth marketing agency Livity.

“We're in danger of seeing the lowest youth turnout for an election in living memory if the political parties don’t engage young people in a meaningful debate about their futures by embracing the channels and issues that are most important to them.”

She went on to suggest that in the current political climate, young people feel increasingly isolated from and disillusioned with the system and how it communicates, before adding that the main political parties are not prioritising their needs or listening to their demands and that politicians don't talk to them in a way they understand.

“The fact that the election has been called on a day when huge numbers of young people will be taking exams and moving back from university shows how little young people's experience is valued,” she argued.

If any lessons from past elections have been learnt, one crucial one must be that ensuring this massive and influential swathe of the population is heard and engaged with through digital and social media channels to avoid leaving youth voters out in the cold.

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