Last week, this website broke the news that the “miniature hut” which was the temporary residence of the First Minister of Wales was in fact anything but miniature, nor was it a hut. It was a failing in the Welsh Government’s media strategy which, so far during the pandemic, has been on a tight leash.
The claim the First Minister made during a radio interview was unnecessary. It was enough for people to have known, as they did by then, that Mark Drakeford had separated himself from his family, who were shielding. That had already won him sympathy, and far more than had been received by Boris Johnson, who had lived apart from Carrie Symonds in the latter part of her pregnancy.
The Welsh Government’s media strategy throughout the pandemic has relied on putting the First Minister front and centre. It was noticeable during last December’s General Election campaign that Jeremy Corbyn was conspicuous by his absence in Wales. At the time Labour colleagues told me they simply did not want Corbyn here. The strategy revolved around Mark Drakeford and Welsh Labour. It was, they said, a personally led campaign.
This personification of our politics is nothing new, of course. Back in 1997 the Labour Party came up with the pocket-sized pledge card, signed by Tony Blair. When I was volunteering at CCHQ in Wales in 2014-15, contact centre scripts invariably began with “I’m calling on behalf of the Prime Minister”. Around the same time, Leanne Wood had done well for Plaid in the televised Leaders’ Debate, and the party changed their registration with the Electoral Commission so that ballot papers would describe them as Plaid Cymru, Leader – Leanne Wood.
These tactics, although different in their nature, had the same overriding objective – to engender a personal call to action by the Party Leader, and to make the vote choice around personality, not just political philosophy
A similar thing is happening in our politics today. Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections, together with a London Assembly poll, are not due to take place until next May. That said, the main parties are treating the pandemic as part of a long campaign. In Wales, the First Minister continued to carry on with daily press briefings long after Downing Street had stopped. A video clip of him saying that he really liked cheese went viral. He’s even appeared on radio shows where the target listener is a third of his age. It’s all designed, of course, to paint a positive picture of the man who has locked the country down, but who will still want you to vote for him next May.
The Conservatives have been professionalising personality politics for years. Anyone who has seen a Conservative video on social media will know that it often includes Boris Johnson’s signature at the end. It’s almost an American “My name’s Boris and I endorse this message”. More recently, of course, the “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign has featured Rishi Sunak very strongly. The relationship between Number 11 and Number 10 is often fraught. Boris Johnson must have an extraordinarily strong understanding with the man who became Chancellor by accident, replacing Sajid Javid just days before a crucial budget. It is an effective campaign. I’ve even noticed people in restaurants asking staff if they are participating in “Rishi’s deal”.
With Welsh Labour putting Mark Drakeford front and centre of their messaging, the Welsh Conservatives will need to play to their strengths and maybe just ask Rishi (and Boris) to pay some more visits to Wales between now and next May.