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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle