This evening about 100 people gathered in a School in Edgbaston for one of the ‘Cameron Direct’ events. The concept is simple. ‘Dave’ pitches up to a bare stage, yards from the crowd. There are no speeches, no notes, just questions from the audience and answers from the man. It isn’t a specially invited audience. All sorts can and do turn up.
I’ll not bore with the specific details of what was said. Suffice to say the questions jumped around topics as diverse as ‘Sure Start’, the NHS, Wars, Student Finance, Capital Punishment with a few very testy moments on unemployment and immigration. Those who went would have learned nothing about policy that they could not found on the Conservative website. But this isn’t about policy announcement – this is pure campaigning. The attention spent in Edgbaston is another boost to the campaign of Deirdre Alden who is well on course to reclaim this seat.
What interested me was deciding if this is a good way of campaigning? Is it a good use of Cameron’s limited time? On reflection: You bet.
Insofar as Cameron has an image problem it remains his background. People hear he went to Eton then hear he is loaded and for many that makes him from Mars. He cannot change those things and is always upfront that he wouldn’t if he could, they are part of what makes him who he is – but he can try and get across that ‘despite’ his background he is not totally removed from humanity in Britain. Whilst he makes a reasonable fist of getting this across on telly the small screen still shows ‘another’ world in our perceptions. When we want to really judge the character of a person we want to look them directly in the eye and see them in the flesh as they interact. Without the human contact we feel we are being ‘spun’. These flesh pressing events are therefore the perfect vehicle for Cameron to help shed the last doubts of the floating voters:
- The venues are intimate: Voters see him from a few yards away, hear him speak with no pomp, and can see the event is not stage managed. This is him – for real.
- People will make their own judgement if he is sincere. Mine is he is. And I believe that most people who attend make that same judgement.
- That judgement will be passed onto friends multi-fold. Mary will tell ten friends like Jane “I went to see Cameron. He surprised me. He came across as genuine.’ – Jane will tell ten friends like Sid “A mate of mine met Cameron – he isn’t actually that bad”, Sid will tell ten friends like Paul “A friend of a friend of mine has spent time with him. He’s OK”. Multiply those conversations by many, many thousands and you begin to chip away at the doubts that may linger. This is human engagement with thousands directly and then with hundreds of thousands only a step or two removed. Social networking actually doesn’t always require trendy new social media tools on the ‘interweb’ – human networks can be powerful enough.
Wisely, to get most bang for buck, they’re scheduling as many of these as possible in marginal seats. It is simply impossible to imagine Brown being able to pull off a similar level of human engagement. Every attempt Labour has tried at this has been a disaster (the best one being the classic youtube video HERE). Although Cameron Direct probably seems to immediately hit fewer people than other gimmicks like joining twitter could (see here for why that is a bad idea) – for all the reasons above it has far more tangible impact. His campaign managers have got this spot on.
Of course, gaining public trust isn’t the be all and end all. It is just an enabler. Cameron does carry extra disadvantage in his pursuit of trust because of people’s experience of Blair. Let’s face it Blair was the Crown Prince of ‘trust me’ politics. There is a huge element of ‘once bitten’ that makes the hurdle Cameron has to overcome much higher. The good news is that through these events he is clearing it. Cameron Direct works. Let’s ramp them up in the run up to the election.
Ultimately, ‘being trusted’ is to seek to do the job. ‘Judgement’ and ‘delivery’ is to actually do the job. And it was the judgement and delivery where Blair failed. Cameron does need to build trust – it is his permission to govern. But he must never lose sight that earned trust can be easily lost. He needs to follow up with judgement and delivery and I trust that from May this year – he will.