How to write a killer political slogan

If you want a great line, get a single person to write it. Then get a single person to approve it. Then spend two years and a lot of money saying it over and over again.

I’m sure the Guardian thinks their random political slogan generator is a harmless bit of fun inspired by Kevin Rudd’s fairly insipid campaign slogan. Let me disabuse them. I suspect many of the parties are probably flicking gently through it and writing down a few choice selections.

I once sat in a room of about 20 people, where we were invited to write a memorable line to adorn the platform at conference. Entirely predictably, this process was an unmitigated disaster. After an hour of coming up with any number of lines that randomly sorted words like New, Better, Fair, Green, Future, Britain, Fresh, Together and Change into a new order, we all agreed that perhaps it would be better if we got one person to write one memorable line with a single pertinent thought. We then, ahem, "discussed" for another hour who should write it.

Take a look at the last General Election. Without scrolling down, can you recall any party’s election slogan? In case you can’t, here’s a selection from the five biggest national parties at General Election 2010. Even when prompted can you recall whose is whose? And aren’t they all pretty interchangeable?

Vote for Change

Empowering the People

Fair is worth Fighting For

Change that Works for You

A Future Fair for All

The last one doesn’t even make sense (unless the party in question truly was proposing to give everyone who voted a futuristic helter-skelter and dodgems).

There’s nothing new in this. Name a past General Election Slogan. Most people can name just one – "Labour Isn’t Working", which is a great line but isn’t a campaign slogan. It’s a headline from a poster. 

The problem is, we’ve all become fixated with "the one great line". And it’s all Barack Obama’s fault, with "Change we can believe in". In reality, not even this line stood alone. Other lines dominated the campaign, like "Yes, we can" and the Fairey Posters "Hope" and "Change". But since 2008, it’s become a "mandatory" - and an obsession - to write a great campaign line. And it takes up an inordinate amount of headspace.

So can I make a suggestion to all the parties. If you want a great line, get a single person to write it. Then get a single person to approve it. Then spend two years and a lot of money saying it over and over again. And get someone to say it with affection, with emotion and with conviction. It’s the only way.

It's why, 21 years on, I still believe in a place called Hope.

The likes of Barack Obama's 2008 "Yes we can" have a lot to answer for. Photo: Getty

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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