The use of personal brand in politics is as old as politics itself. From Cleon through Caesar, Disraeli and Trump – the charisma, status and celebrity of an individual has often risen above party or policy when it comes to elections.
So is the case in three upcoming mayoral elections this May: Sadiq Khan’s image as the ‘son of a bus driver’ epitome of London’s multiculturalism and meritocracy; Andy Street, the former John Lewis boss claiming to cut through the politics in the West Midlands with a businessman’s straight-talking clout; and Andy Burnham, the so-called ‘King in the North’ keen to be seen holding Westminster to account from his Mancunian throne.
Khan and Burnham, Labour candidates in Labour strongholds – show how their name recognition and personal popularity can make you unassailable when you also have the party-political balance in your favour. Both lead their opponents by a substantial margin. But they represent different Labour wings, and are trying to appeal to different audiences.
Burnham has attempted to wipe his stint in Gordon Brown’s Cabinet from voters’ memories as he focuses on his northern roots and recent success in standing up to Westminster and Boris Johnson over coronavirus restrictions in Manchester. As the inaugural mayor, he has been able to form the role in his image and make his brand synonymous with the rise of the city region. While the voice of Manchester and the North has grown louder, he has grown with it as the leading spokesperson for a swathe of the country that feels no one in Westminster / the south has been listening.
Meanwhile, Khan, well-known since his election in 2016 for his highly-polished persona, has perhaps risked his branding becoming a hindrance rather than a help. Anti-London sentiment across the UK, along with Brexit, a crisis in the provision of affordable housing and rising crime rates, has left the capital wounded and could have meant an opportunity for a mayoral challenger. But Khan’s technique of ‘talking up’ London, combined with the strong anti-Brexit, anti-Boris Labour vote in the capital, has kept his polling numbers undiminished. To-date the undistinguished campaign of Conservative rival Shaun Bailey has left the outcome of May’s vote in little doubt.
The situation for the Conservative Andy Street is very different. He has used his business brand, touting strong industry links, to overturn the traditionally Labour voting West Midlands by an extremely tight margin, riding a wave of antipathy towards the traditional political class. It is testament to his dynamic presentational style, his focus on local issues, and his claims not to be interested in a wider political career that he is still tipped as the narrow favourite against Labour candidate, former Treasury Minister and local MP, Liam Byrne.
All three mayoral incumbents have successfully tapped into their regions’ respective zeitgeists. Whether North vs South, business vs politics, or Remain vs Brexit, their brands are built on divisions that carry a strength of feeling able to overcome other policy positions or even party loyalty. But this is nothing new. The next elections will bring different divisions and demagogues. What matters is that after four years of careful brand curation, there’s still a lot of time for the shine to start coming off, and the candidates’ decisions in these final weeks are key. Will Burnham burnish his brand with more Boris bashing? Will Khan’s modern, multicultural, metropolitan messaging move him further into the lead? Will Street’s promises of an inward investment business boost clinch it for the West Midlands voters? We’ll be watching.
Thomas Parfitt is a senior account executive at Camargue