The best communicator won each General Election from the last 30 years - here's why

Nick Smallman
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Margaret Thatcher's strength and clarity helped her to beat Neil Kinnock (Source: Getty)
Having a party leader who understands how to communicate isn't just a useful bonus - it's probably proved decisive in every General Election of the last 30 years.
That magic combination of authenticity, decisiveness and/or likeability has always been critical for the man or woman seeking to get into Number 10 - and it's no coincidence the better leader has always emerged on top.
Glance over the campaigns of the last three decades and you'll see what I mean.

1987 - Margaret Thatcher beats Neil Kinnock

Winning attributes: Strength and clarity
By 1987 the Tory prime minister didn't need to persuade the electorate she was a woman of purpose, because whether they liked her or not they'd seen her deliver time and time again. Her personal brand was strong and the country knew where they stood with her.
Her opponent, Neil Kinnock, was clearly articulate, a wonderful speechmaker and passionately believed in Labour values - but his move away from Michael Foot's 1983 "suicide note" manifesto created question-marks which his communication style did nothing to fix.
He just didn't present a clear message to voters - especially not in contrast with Mrs Thatcher's positive economic message. And that's what mattered in the end.

1992 - John Major beats Neil Kinnock

Winning attributes: Authenticity and humbleness
In what turned out to be a surprising result, it was the authenticity of John Major that prevailed.
While Kinnock excelled at triumphalist platform speeches, it was Major's decision to get on his soapbox and revert to a more traditional way of campaigning which helped him.
Here were two extremes of branding: Kinnock was trying to look like a president while Major, playing up his lowly origins, was trying to be humble. Humble worked.
Major connected with the mood in Britain, which proved more comfortable with the gentler Conservative message than with the bombast of Labour.

1997 - Tony Blair beats John Major

Winning attributes: New and energetic
By the time 1997 rolled around, Major had been prime minister for seven years.
He'd lost his calm managerial style of 1992 and was instead defined by his inability to control the ill-disciplined Conservatives' infighting.
His tired brand couldn't have been more different to his vibrant, dynamic and relevant challenger.
Tony Blair, armed with his rigorously market-tested pledge card, was also supported by a communications regime that was very adept at managing the press. Simply calling Labour 'New Labour' was a masterstroke.
There was no contest - and the resulting landslide mirrored the one-sided walkover between the two leaders.

2001 - Tony Blair beats William Hague

Winning attributes: Dynamic and relevant
Blair was still in his element in the 2001 campaign. He seemed to have his finger on the zeitgeist: Oasis and Blur had been into No 10 at the height of Britpop and the UK was very confident, having bounced back strongly from the economic woes of the 90s.
It was the incumbent's energy and decisiveness that stood out against his challenger, William Hague, who was struggling to even appear relevant.
Images of the Conservative leader trying to look cool at the Notting Hill carnival seemed to sum that up and his key campaign message - saving the pound - didn't resonate in an economy that was performing well.
Unlike Hague, Blair knew how to play to the right audience. He remained a formidable communicator and the result was a second landslide.

2005 - Tony Blair beats Michael Howard

Winning attributes: Certain and experienced
Politics had moved on by 2005. Britain was living in a post 9/11 world and Blair had become embroiled in the Iraq war.
But throughout it, the now-veteran PM excelled at appearing like a leader who knew the direction he wanted to go in.
That ability to articulate himself had only improved and, with the economy continuing to perform well, he came across far better than his old-fashioned Tory opponent.
Michael Howard had struggled to shake off Ann Widdecombe's old slur that there was "something of the night" about him - and his draconian record as home secretary didn't help either.
Many could be forgiven for asking themselves: would the Tories ever find a leader who knew a thing or two about connecting with voters?

2010 - David Cameron beats Gordon Brown

Winning attributes: Polished and new
The cloud that always seemed to follow Gordon Brown around never shifted during the 2010 campaign.
His gruff, serious style seemed to underline the fact that, while he'd only been in No 10 for three years, he had been in power for a very long time.
There was something ironic about the fact Brown's rival, David Cameron, had adopted a slick presentation style reminiscent of his old partner Blair.
Cameron gave the Conservatives a more moderate, futuristic sheen which clashed with the "man of yesteryear" sense clinging to Brown.
Though Cameron didn't win an overall majority his articulate, energetic, unthreatening approach was more than enough to trump the embattled New Labour veteran in the communication stakes.

2015 - David Cameron beats Ed Miliband - or does he?

Before this campaign began, it seemed the Conservatives' ad hominem attacks against Ed Miliband would only reinforce voters' perceptions Labour had picked the wrong salesman.
Miliband had come across as less prime ministerial, while Cameron was determined to ram home his single-track economy/jobs/growth message throughout.
As the last few weeks have shown, the Tory incumbent is playing up all the advantages of his incumbency.
But Miliband's heightened confidence has raised his game and turned what would have been another one-sided contest into a more even, unpredictable result.
Having been able to pick the winner for every election of the last 30 years based on a straightforward comparison of their communication styles, this is the first contest when that just isn't possible.
It doesn't help that neither of these two leaders are dominant communicators like Blair or Thatcher. Cameron and Miliband aren't that bad - but they aren't that good, either.

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