How UK political parties should PR the EU elections

Locked-in disagreement with a Prime Minister planning her exit, the House of Commons’ Brexit delay means that the UK is facing EU Parliamentary elections on Thursday 23 May – almost three years after 17.5 million people voted to quit the political and economic bloc in a tightly contested referendum.

The potential vote, the fourth time the British people will be asked to head to a national poll in the space of just five years, has reignited the small parties. Pollster YouGov has Nigel Farage’s new outfit, The Brexit Party, at 15%, with Gerard Batten’s Ukip at 14%, The Greens on 8%, the Liberal Democrats on 8% and Change UK (the political organisation formerly known as The Independent Group) on 7%. With a Parliamentary recess upon us, the parties are now getting their PR and communications operations into gear.

For James Mills, former Head of Communications to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Labour’s Treasury Team, it is a vote that neither the Conservatives or Labour want. “The only reason they are even taking place is due to the failure of the government,” he told Newgate Communications.

“It will be vital for Labour to speak with one voice to have any chance of doing well. One of the obvious challenges Labour face is communicating a successful narrative for the European elections that will not be upended by negative stories around infighting and division.

“For example, most of the MEPs are not signed up to the frontbench position, and then there will be MPs who side with the People’s Vote position. The latter has immense resources to match that of any political party, and they will be doing their best to support the remain narratives in these elections that are unhelpful to Labour’s more thoughtful and nuanced position.”

Mills urged Labour, whose leader is in crunch Brexit talks with May, to replicate their approach to the 2017 General Election, the vote which saw Jeremy Corbyn surprise the Westminster commentariat with a 9.6% increase in the share of the vote to more than 30% and 30 more seats in the Commons.

“[The party should] select a few trusted, well-briefed spokespeople, who [are able] to act as the main message carriers,” Mills said. “Labour’s attack message needs to be something along the lines of ‘vote Labour to tell Theresa May what you think of her deal and the last nine years of Tory austerity’.”

The Conservatives face a particularly unenviable communications challenge. May, who once infamously declared that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, has dramatically changed her tune. First, the Prime Minister has attempted to avoid a no deal scenario, and then she brought Corbyn, a man who she claimed in 2017 was “not fit to lead”, into Number 10.

 “Lots of Tory MPs want to boycott [the EU lections], including a Cabinet source I spoke to [recently],” lobby journalist and Business Insider UK senior politics reporter Adam Payne said.

Mark Wallace, Editor-in-Chief of Conservative Home, has reported that his party faces “serve problems” entering the campaign, with some members admitting to their associations that they will back the Brexit Party and Ukip at the elections.

As for how Farage’s organisation plans to approach the campaign, a spokesperson for the Brexit Party told Newgate that they will target regional and local publications. “It has far greater trust [among readers and voters] for good reason,” he said.

The spokesperson also claimed that the difference between Ukip and The Brexit Party was “obvious” and that the party does not plan to “do anything about that”.

The pro-EU Greens, meanwhile, are promising to help “elect MEPs with the vision needed to deliver real change in Europe” and, much like The Brexit Party and Ukip, they have adopted anti-establishment messaging.

“Now is the time to show the mainstream parties what kind of Britain we want to be. This isn’t just about Europe, leave or remain, this is about our country and our values,” a recent fundraising message claimed.

The EU Parliamentary elections, therefore, are turning out to be a great communications opportunity for the small guys, who will benefit from a beneficial voting system (a regional closed list form of proportional representation) and an expected gap on the airwaves and in print from Labour and the Tories. The two main parties face defensive duties, with a gang of outsiders, including Change UK’s Heidi Allen, Farage, Batten and Green co-leaders Jonathan Bartley and Siân Berry, taking them on in the media.

Ian Silvera is a Senior Consultant at Newgate Communication. To find out more about our Public Affairs team, please contact the team.