Negative campaigning works. But on the issues not the personalities

by Pete Heskett

Labour’s task for May 2015 is complex. Clearly the party needs a powerful narrative that gives people positive reasons to vote Labour. However, history also shows that in many instances the electorate vote the incumbents out as much as the vote a new party in – Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1979 was to a large extent a rejection of Labour, unemployment and the three-day-week, Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 was boosted by a rejection of sleaze, and John Major’s benign under-panted leadership.

If Labour’s recent party political broadcast is anything to go by then we seem to be asking the electorate to get rid of the coalition because Nick Clegg is shallow and weak and the Tories a bunch of mean toffs. Now I’m sure there are many Labour loyalists who agree with this character assessment. However, it’s communication that speaks to the prejudices of those already converted not the broad-based liberal coalition that Jonathan Todd rightly identifies as the target Labour needs to attract to form a government in 2015.

For me this raises an important strategic point for Labour’s communications team. Negative campaigning in the UK at least tends to be most effective when it makes a political point rather than when it tries to make a personal point. Or to use a gender-biased footballing analogy, Labour is now looking guilty of playing the man and not the ball.

Let’s look at some of the most effective political ads in UK history. “Labour isn’t working” was a poster that helped bring Thatcher to power. It didn’t attack Jim Callaghan as a person – wise as he was generally rightly perceived as nice guy – but it linked the Labour government with unemployment. A strategic masterstroke that hit straight at the heart of Labour’s credibility – how could a party of ‘labour’ be responsible for extending the dole queue? Mrs Thatcher rose to power with a greater proportion of working class votes than even the worst nightmares of the Labour leadership would have thought possible.

Labour working not

Consider next the Conservative’s “Demon Eyes” posters from 1997. Whilst one of the most high-profile and buzz generating pieces of political advertising ever created, this spectacularly failed to avert a huge Labour landslide that swept Tony Blair to power. Now with the benefit of 45 minute claim hindsight some would argue that this poster was hugely prescient. However, it is a classic case of character assassination rather than policy assassination. Voting is deeply emotional, but this poster reinforced more of the negative emotions people felt about the Tories than they did about Tony Blair. It reinforced the Conservatives as the nasty party, trying to manipulate the electorate rather than having any substance to why they should be retained in government. An important lesson emerges – negative campaigning says as much about you as it does the thing you attack.

Demon eyes

In this context I worry about the ‘Un-credible shrinking man’ party political broadcast. Labour needs to generate confidence in its policy platform and here the party comes across as resentful of class and more interested in personal cheap shots. Youtube like figures at the time of writing show that this PPB has generated nearly as many dislikes as likes – Labour needs a much stronger hit rate for its communications than that.

To qualify my point, I’m not saying that considerations of character and personality have no influence on voting – clearly they do. However, I would argue that the media, and performances in the media, are far more influential on how the electorate judge these things than party political communication. The Sun in particular played a strong role in stopping Neil Kinnock in 1992 and John Major in 1997 from winning elections. But it is telling that ‘Demon Eyes’ from the Tories, which was recognised as the ‘Best ad of the year’ by the ad-industry organ Campaign, failed to stop Tony Blair in 1997.

So, if Labour wants to encourage voters in 2015 to get rid of the coalition it needs to attack the politics and not the people. The queue’s at food banks, the war on the poor, the privatisation of the NHS, our relentless progress towards an ever more unfair, unequal and non-meritocratic society are far stronger reasons to vote out the Coalition than this latest offering.

Pete Heskett works in advertising

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7 Responses to “Negative campaigning works. But on the issues not the personalities”

  1. swatantra says:

    I’d like to think that Labour was above that sort of disgracefull behaviour the Tories indulge in. Stop knocking Dave and Clegg but challenge them on their incompetance and ability to deliver for Britain.

  2. Tafia says:

    They can’t Swat. Such an argument would be defeated in six words that would horrify the electorate – ‘ Tony f@@@ing Blair, Gordon f@@@ing Brown’.

  3. Kernow Castellan says:

    A negative message can be very strong, because it encourages the question “so what would you do instead”, which then gives permission for the alternative policy to be outlined.

    However, if you are negative without an alternative on your pocket, you just become a whiny protest group (think Ukip).

    Ed has to answer the fundamental question – what can a left wing party do when there’s no money available. He’s started (state intervention in the private sector, rather than spending in the public sector) but the messages are very mixed, and economic credibility remains low in all the polls.

  4. Rob Alexander says:

    i’d suggest that it’s possible to fuse both personal and political to be deeply effective. ‘Wiggy’ – Hague with Thatcher’s hair from 2001 was visually compelling, made a political point about hard-line thatcherism lurking in the Tories’ manifesto and Hague look ridiculous. Which is why it got a lot of press coverage, commentary and word of mouth. I agree with you though that being just personal is pretty unlikely to be effective. Last week’s PEB was poor, juvenile and an example of the party talking to itself not the voters and potential voters it needs to reach and engage.

  5. Pete Heskett says:

    Hi Kernow – thanks for the comment and I agree with your point. However, I think in terms of strategy Ed is focusing in some of the right areas – the policies he’s outlined in the last few months get broad endorsement even amongst Tory voters as YouGov data has indicated last week.
    However, it’s the packaging that is the issue. Ed’s ratings are poor. He is not slick like Cameron and can’t win if he tries to play they game like that. He’s got to find his own way of communicating and he needs to find a way to warm people up. It’s a fantastic strategic/communications challenge but probably the crucial thing that will decide Labour’s fate in 2015.

  6. Pete Heskett says:

    Hey Rob – great to have your contribution given your experience in this area.
    I agree with you and I feel that ‘Wiggy’ is an example where policy implications were inherent in the image.
    Response to ‘Wiggy’ wasn’t ‘we’re worried Hague is a crossdresser with bad 80s hair’ but ‘we’re worried Hague represents a journey back to Thatcherite policies’. The image wasn’t a negative attack on his personality but more one about how he would govern.
    You’re right to bring it up as it’s another good example of the point I’m trying to make.

  7. Pete Heskett says:

    Agree Swatantra.

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