David Cameron unveils this year's campaign poster. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Instant messaging: looking back on the golden age of political advertising

Sam Delaney’s Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened when British Politics Met Advertising captures forty years of politics – through posters.

Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising
Sam Delaney
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99

The only rational people in politics are floating voters. To be a non-floating voter is to believe something preposterous: that one party is always right. A floater would have been right to vote for the Tories in 1979 to curb the anti-democratic power of the unions; and would be right to vote for Labour now, to avoid Osborne’s neoliberal fantasies – if it weren’t for the inspissated gloom that hangs like a cloud of soot over Ed Miliband.

Without floaters, we would live not in a democracy but in a state of permanent tribal warfare. There would also be no need for party political broadcasts, pollsters, advertising or marketing; the only figure that would matter would be the birth rate of the respective party adherents. But we do have floaters – lots of them – and so we must put up with all the manipulative wiles and harassments of the modern media.

The question then becomes: does any of it work? And, if it does, how does it work? Sam Delaney admits he began this thorough and intelligent book in the belief that political advertising is pointless but he arrives, finally, at a more subtle view. “Admen,” he concludes, “the good ones anyway, help politicians put their complicated ideas into succinct packages ... All they really want to do is help make sense of what politicians are trying to explain. And that is a deeply democratic objective.”

After some initial historical background, the story Delaney tells begins and ends with two Tory election victories, in 1979 and in 2010. This, in turn, is divided into two phases separated by Tony Blair’s Labour victory in 1997. The story is told partly through personal recollection and involvement. The author’s uncle Tim Delaney was an adman who worked on Jim Callaghan’s unwinnable 1979 campaign. There are also very good interviews with formidable figures such as Chris Patten and Norman Tebbit. Delaney is no prose stylist and the introduction is distinctly rocky but when he hits his stride his account is swift and readable.

The significance of 1979 is captured in a description of an encounter in a Soho restaurant a year earlier. Lunching on champagne and “huge spoonfuls” of caviar were Gordon Reece, the director of publicity for the Tories, and Tim Bell, the chairman of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which Reece had just hired. One of the ensuing posters – “Labour Isn’t Working”, with its snaking dole queue – defined the new, aggressive, negative, shockingly simplified style that was to dominate British political advertising until 1997.

Did this campaign work in the sense of ensuring Margaret Thatcher’s victory? No. After the Winter of Discontent, Callaghan’s Labour was doomed – and, indeed, more doomed than anybody then realised. The party stayed out of power for 18 years.

Michael Foot’s 1983 campaign would also have been doomed even without the suicidal manifesto. The adman Johnny Wright – he appears here as witty and fatalistic – tried his best with negative poster lines such as: “Are you going to vote for Mag the knife?” It was all in vain. Now Wright believes that the effect of such advertising is indirect: it raises the morale of party workers.

What Foot’s defeat achieved was to start the process of reform that led to Blair’s 1997 victory. Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould moved in to drag Labour from the left to the centre. The advertising for the 1987 campaign (with lines such as “The country is crying out for change”) showed a muted recognition of the power of Saatchi-ism but voters were still too scared to vote for a change. It wasn’t until 1992, with Thatcher deposed, that Labour had a serious chance of winning. The Tories’ first impulse was not to hire the Saatchis: they were regarded as “divisive, egomaniacal and destructive”. But in the end, the brothers were approached and Shaun Woodward, John Major’s spin doctor, learned the S&S message: kill or be killed. They tried to terrify voters with Labour’s tax plans.

Patten, who led the campaign team, said the Saatchis helped the Tories pursue the simple logic of electioneering: “Find two or three simple arguments . . . then bash away at them until the public think they are their ideas.” Again, the effect of advertising seems to have been indirect – it was background music rather than the show itself.

The 1997 election marked the end of this phase. “The golden age of the Eighties,” writes Delaney, “with its hellzapoppin election campaigns run by hare-brained admen and gnarly old political operators, was gone.” Power was handed to shrewd manipulators such as Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Negativity was abandoned. New Labour’s message was to be upbeat and positive. One last old-school, hare-brained adman – Trevor Beattie – injected some life into Labour’s 2001 campaign, notably with a poster showing William Hague, then the Tory leader, with Thatcher’s hair. But the Saatchi-dominated era was over.

Today I am not clear – I don’t believe anybody is – what either main party means and you can’t construct an effective one-liner out of smoke and mirrors. The election posters recently unveiled by the Tories say nothing and say it badly. A supposedly positive one shows a road going nowhere – not an attractive proposition. The other is negative, showing Miliband in an embrace with Alex Salmond, a message that takes at least two further thoughts to understand. Such complexity is the one always-fatal advertising mistake.

Delaney writes that “wonkish jargon” has replaced rhetoric and: “Political communication is in a bigger crisis now than it was 40 years ago.” Never mind. He seems to have some hopes for May 2015. Bill Muirhead, an old Saatchi hellzapopper, tells Delaney a good attack on Miliband would be to say that he stabbed his brother in the back, so “imagine what he’d do to the country”. Funny – but it wouldn’t hurt Miliband, or help the Tories. The future is with the floaters. And these days, I would guess, most of them don’t even notice the posters. 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser