Taking the Lead: How Labour’s message got thrown under the bus

Posted on February 17, 2015 by Vicky Welstead

woman to woman labour bus

If the choice of a bright pink* bus to signal “women’s issues” wasn’t enough to set teeth on edge, Labour’s new Woman to Woman campaign promises to “have a conversation about the kitchen table… around the kitchen table”. The implication that 51% of the population is more interested in talking to MPs about the price of biscuits than, say, economic stability, foreign policy or the future of the NHS is a risky move. As one online commentator beneath The Guardian's write-up put it “This floating voter just floated away.”

It’s a shame, because underneath the cringeworthy Barbie packaging lie very good intentions. Defending the campaign Harriet Harman said there are some issues particular to women that get sidelined in mainstream political debate, such as concerns arising from women having “different patterns in their working life”. Apart from the careless assumption that all women are or intend to be mothers, she’s got a point. Problems like the crippling cost of childcare and the gender pay divide may be old news but they deserve both a better hearing and better solutions.

Leaving aside its presentation, the existence of a separate campaign for women comes with an admission that British politics is failing to address issues that matter to female voters. While any attempt to redress the balance is better than nothing at all, creating a special initiative implies that most policies are still being created by men, for men. It also suggests that politicians think women are a minority group who all think the same.

If the Woman to Woman campaign recovers from its rocky start and achieves its stated aim of talking to a significant proportion of the nine million women who didn’t vote in the last election, MPs and activists might just go back to Westminster with some fresh priorities.

Its stereotypical packaging makes what will inevitably be known as the pink bus campaign easy to mock. At Prime Minister’s question time the opposition’s goal was wide open, allowing David Cameron to joke that Labour “can’t talk to women because they’ve got a pink bus touring the country”. Yet no party holds a monopoly on treating women as a separate species. Last month the Prime Minister himself suggested businesswomen are a breed apart, not simply a diverse collection of people who happen to work in business. Labour is taking the flack for now, but it remains to be seen whether the other parties have anything better to offer female voters.

The whole story is a warning of the pitfalls of ignoring the basic rules of effective communication. One of the things drummed into me in my first communications job was to “remember the reader” at all times. It’s hardly rocket science, but there’s a lot to be said for putting yourself in your intended audience’s shoes before putting pen to paper, or turning ideas into reality.

Election strategists and indeed anyone attempting to engage a large group of people should beware the dangers of falling in love with one’s own ideas and instead trust in empathy and research. Surely any straw poll of women would have made it abundantly clear that the execution of this admittedly good intention needed a rethink. Sometimes failing to listen is the same as failing altogether.

* For anyone wondering what Man Bites Dog’s particular shade of pink signifies I can reveal it's razor sharp intelligence, bold decisions and dogs. Lots and lots of dogs.



This post is part of Man Bites Dog's Taking the Lead blog series focusing on women.

To see the other blogs in the series, click here


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