Marketing principles involves having them

The current direction of the Conservative Party leadership in the UK could serve as a case study of how not to implement value-based communication (VBC).  The idea of VBC is that you tune how you market your principles and policies to reflect the values people feel are most important in choosing leaders and/or policies.  According to the classification of the late Aaron Wildavsky, there are three main values groups: libertarians, who value freedom; hierarchists, who value order; and egalitarians, who value fairness.  Bill Clinton was a master in portraying his policies as reflecting all three values.

Now it is certainly true that the British Conservative Party was failing dismally in matching its policies to voter values.  In the manifesto for the last election in 2005, by my calculation, 5 of the 6 main policies were marketed as hierarchist policies, 1 as libertarian and none whatsoever as egalitarian.  To reconnect with the electorate, it was clear that the Tories were going to have to explain how their policies made life fairer and more free for people.  It seemed, when he was elected party leader, that David Cameron understood that.

Instead what has happened has not been egalitarian marketing of conservative policies, but the junking of those policies in favor of policies that have previously appealed to egalitarians, like environmentalism, redefining poverty as relative rather than absolute, and being kind to muggers – “hug a hoodie” as they called it in the UK.  As one Conservative representative said in my earshot when I was last in the UK, “I don’t see why we should have to adopt the entire agenda of the Albanian Communist Party.”

VBC theory, of course, would predict that such an approach would attract some egalitarians to the party, but at the expense of the hierachists who had been the party’s main core beforehand.  That is exactly what appears to be happening.  According to the latest poll, the Conservatives are behind Labour again, as voters whose main value is the hierachist one of security have gone to the Labour Party.

If David Cameron wants to gain a commanding poll lead over Labour, he could return to core principles such as economic liberalism and national security, while marketing those in terms of their fairness (e.g. a Western state built on a strong defense, civil society and religious liberty is the best champion of womens’ rights, for instance, or school choice ensures better schooling for all, or, dare I say it, the benefits of fossil fuel use lift all boats).

Instead, disenchanted Tories will vote for the party that most reflects their values, which may well be Labour.  Other egalitarians will continue to vote Labour as long as its economic policy is redistributionist via its tax regime.  Libertarians will have either the Liberal Democrats or the fledgling UK Independence Party to vote for as well as the Conservatives.

Unless there is a significant rethink, the current Tory communication effort will continue to fail to achieve its goals.  Those of us who have spent years studying how to market liberty could have told them that.