The Government always knew keeping public opinion onside during the early days of a second spike would be hard.
As the threat to public health is getting graver, lockdown fatigue is setting in and concerns about national debt are growing. But all is not lost.
This administration was elected with a landslide less than ten months ago.
As a communications specialist who has worked at the Department of Education, alongside Dominic Cummings under Michael Gove – I see seven key ways Boris can win back the electorate
1. Forget the polls
The Government needs to junk almost all its opinion polling. All the polls show that the public back strict lockdown measures – just as they always have.
But voters are on morphine supplied in the form of vast furlough payments and emergency support. In this context, the public has no sense of the real state of the economy – and therefore no sense of the trade-offs being made between public health and public finances.
People will always favour tighter restrictions when they think they pose little direct risk to them. As it stands, few think their taxes will rise, their personal debt will increase or that their jobs are in danger.
Ministers have created a vicious cycle of opinion. They’re pumping up support for tight restrictions, reading polls that say the public want tight restrictions, then doubling down. If the Government is going to help us get back to normal, it’s going to have to break this cycle. And the best way is to stop reading the polls for a bit.
2. Start being honest
The chances of the cavalry arriving with millions of vaccine shots before the money runs out look slim. It seems likely that we’ll have to find a way to live with risk.
If ministers don’t prepare the ground now, they’ll find the public in shock when suddenly the Government removes financial support. They’ve also got to encourage people to start managing their own risk.
Only Rishi Sunak has been prepared to deliver this message. He should be unleashed to start telling the public some fundamental truths about protecting the economy and, in turn, our public services and living standards. They will come to accept this. But it’s a message that is going to take time to filter through and so needs to be delivered now.
The government have made enemies of middle-class parents of students. Pushing them into civil disobedience to protect their families will end catastrophically
3. Value Family
There’s only one value the British hold more dear than fairness, and that’s family. While they want ludicrous violations of lockdown rules punished in the name of fairness, they’ll also do whatever it takes to protect their families and they believe in the sanctity of the private home.
The Government has been dicing with political death recently. They’ve appeared to encourage snitching on other families – which will come back to haunt them in calmer times. They’ve left themselves open to charges of, say, putting the right to attend demos ahead of the freedom to visit relatives.
And they will have made enemies of middle-class parents of students. Ministers should remember who the British are: law-abiding, fair-minded, family-focused and liberal. Pushing them into civil disobedience to protect their families will end catastrophically. (And, whatever you do, don’t mess with the British Christmas.)
4. Demote Scientists
PR’S golden rule is always the same. Wheel out the independent experts and play down the role of politicians. And so government scientists have been front and centre for months.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, it has implied that the scientists are in control of the situation and that there are simple, empirical decisions that can and must be made. This isn’t true, and gives us a false sense of security.
Secondly, most of the scientists are poor speakers. The media love the idea of the trusted scientist that the public love. But this isn’t reality.
They aren’t professional communicators and putting them in positions of public influence is a mistake. The Government needs to downgrade the scientists’ role and take responsibility for what are political decisions.
Since we’re all going to need to get back out there and manage risk, we need Rishi Sunak and a panel of business people to explain in lurid terms the dangers of not doing so
5. Use Rishi more
Communicating on the economy is now the most important challenge – because of the need to prepare people for balanced risk. The public know as much as they ever will about the health risks and the need to socially distance etc.
So there’s little gain now in having the scientists keep talking about it. They won’t help keep the public onside if a million people join the dole queues. Instead, the Government needs to promote business voices who can explain the rationale and risk and reward in ways others can’t.
Since we’re all going to need to get back out there and manage risk, we need Rishi Sunak and a panel of business people to explain in lurid terms the dangers of not doing so.
6. Be less technical
One of the problems that has arisen from the public role of the scientists is the casual use of pointlessly technical language that ordinary people can’t possibly understand.
The use of the ‘R rate’ in public communications is the most obvious example. Of course, when used enough, they take on the meaning they’re supposed to have. But as part of the shift to promote political voices, there’s got to be an onus on using the simplest language.
7. Respond globally
One of the weird things about the global pandemic is that each country seems to be grappling with its own specific outbreak. It will be far easier to keep the public onside if politicians are seen to be talking and learning from one another. The public will be more open to change if they can see we are cooperating with other nations.
The Government has promised to allow more parliamentary scrutiny but I fear that, without embracing the sort of approach I have outlined above, the country will remain in a state of frustrated confusion.
James Frayne is a columnist for ConservativeHome.com and a Founding Partner at policy research agency Public First.