Show don’t tell — What swing voters mean by ‘vision’

When political parties want to convey vision they typically reach for slogans packed with values words like ‘fairness’ and ‘strength’. But according to Ben Shimshon of BritainThinks: "Those grand vision words are almost always taken as a signal that what’s being said is just more ‘politician speak’, and voters’ keenly honed filters screen it out alongside all the other white noise."

Shimson says that parties should try to show rather than tell. What they need is not focus group tested slogans, but a handful of symbolic policies that show voters what the party values and what it thinks needs to change:

In Redditch, we asked participants, ‘what do you mean when you talk about a party’s vision?’ Their responses were instructive: Leafing through a pile of policies that they had just identified as ‘strong’, a respondent pulled out one that said ‘we’ll pay teachers more who teach in the most difficult schools’. ‘This one’s a vision’, he said as others nodded along – ‘it tells me what matters to Labour, what they stand for. They think education isn’t what it should be, and they have a plan for it’.

For the voters we spoke to, when they talk about ‘vision’, they are looking for policies that convey:

  1. A clear account of priorities – the main things that need changing in the country
  2. A credible account of what could be done to tackle those priorities

In this definition, a vision isn’t a picture of the future you want to build, or the values you want to enshrine in our society. It’s a party’s diagnosis of the most pressing issues facing us, and a sensible account of what could improve things.

  • The 1997 pledge card was a vision – a clear account of what needed doing
  • ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ was a vision – a simple, intuitive account of Labour’s approach to a top voter issue
  • The Tory focus on the deficit and austerity ahead of the 2010 election was a vision: ‘They said what was wrong, and they said what they’d do to fix it, and they said it would hurt’

Swing voters will use your priorities – expressed through the symbolic policies you choose to communicate – to decide whether your broader values accord with theirs. They are looking to know what impact you’ll have on the specific things they care about, and they’re much more interested in what you’ll do when you get in than in what sort of world you want to ‘forge’ 20 years hence.

While the party faithful might long for a big narrative that redefines how the nation thinks of itself, swing voters switch off when they hear the grand vision words. They’re not going to stay in their seats long enough to find out the sweeping narrative ends.

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8 years ago

The ALP excels at the misguided messaging Shimson identifies. Gillard’s ventriloquists were abysmal, and Shorten’s aren’t looking much better. Their Facebook messaging on 19 November in response to reports that they would support repeal of carbon pricing in the Senate went as follows (their quotes):

“We also took a very strong commitment that in place of the carbon tax we would put an emissions trading scheme …”

My advice for the ALP:
A commitment is a commitment. “very strong commitment” invites thoughts of very weak commitments, and of a very weak party. Please sack the dolts who do this kind of self-destructive messaging. The only way to be perceived as strong is to be strong.

George Smilovoci knew this: