Selling Socialism: Marketing the Early Labour Party: Party Strategists Are No New Phenomenon, Dominic Wring Says; the Labour Party Has Always Been Concerned with Marketing Its Brand Image

By Wring, Dominic | History Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Selling Socialism: Marketing the Early Labour Party: Party Strategists Are No New Phenomenon, Dominic Wring Says; the Labour Party Has Always Been Concerned with Marketing Its Brand Image


Wring, Dominic, History Today


A MEMO TO TONY BLAIR from chief strategist Philip Gould, published in 2000, described 'New' Labour as a 'contaminated brand'. It graphically underlined the way marketing has come to dominate modern politics. Gould's correspondence further explored how the party might set about winning over the public a year in advance of the general election (in which Labour was, of course, to be comfortably re-elected). The controversial memo made front-page headlines and garnered disapproval from those who took issue with the analysis, Blair's reliance on it, or both, and added to the longstanding charge that Labour was obsessed with style to the detriment of substance.

Similar things were said of Neil Kinnock, the leader who arguably supervised the more fundamental changes to party policy and organization that Blair would eventually inherit. It is noteworthy that many of Kinnock's main lieutenants, including Gould and Peter Mandelson, took up influential positions when Labour eventually gained office in 1997. Many contemporary accounts (particularly journalistic ones) of the Blair phenomenon fail to acknowledge the role and significance of the changes made to the party prior to 1992 and before the 'invention' of 'New' Labour. But if the Kinnock period is somewhat neglected, even less is said and known about the party strategists who began experimenting with marketing techniques in developing their campaigns well before his time.

If studies consider the historical development of electioneering in Britain at all, they tend to assume that professional involvement began some time after the Second World War, with the arrival of mass commercial television and the concurrent expansion of the advertising industry. The Conservative victory of 1959 and Labour's win in 1964 are sometimes identified as breakthrough elections for the way in which both the major parties embraced advertising, public relations and market research expertise. In the latter case, Harold Wilson recruited a formidable 'kitchen cabinet' of largely unelected advisers and hired 'spin doctors', including the (in)famous North East political fixer T. Dan Smith. Here there are obvious parallels with the Blair leadership, and these can be further extended to the way both men campaigned on the theme of a 'New Britain' and were compared to youthful, charismatic US Democratic Presidents (Kennedy in the case of Wilson, Clinton in the case of Blair). And like his successor, Wilson's approach to political presentation attracted internal criticism for being preoccupied with images rather than issues. Interestingly, on both occasions those supporting and opposing Labour's highly self-conscious changes to its publicity appeared unaware that they were participating in a debate that had raged almost as long as the party had existed.

Before the First World War, electioneering had been largely conceived of in terms of canvassing, leafleting, and platform oratory--activities that remained an important aspect of campaigns well into the twentieth century. In the wake of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which trebled the electorate and awakened politicians to the campaigning possibilities of mass communications, party strategists began to evaluate the opportunities offered by more novel means of propaganda such as film, broadcasting and professional advertising. The wealthy Conservatives were quicker to investigate these methods than Labour, due to a combination of bureaucratic inertia, internal rivalries and inadequate finances. The party did, however, form its first Press and Publicity Department in October 1917 as part of a wholesale organizational review that coincided with the introduction of a newly revised constitution. The section attempted to promote the party's case through a largely hostile, privately owned print media and a nominally independent but heavily regulated BBC. It soon became apparent that Labour would need to try and engage the electorate more directly, and many organizers believed the party should do so by promoting the cause through its healthy activist base. …

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Selling Socialism: Marketing the Early Labour Party: Party Strategists Are No New Phenomenon, Dominic Wring Says; the Labour Party Has Always Been Concerned with Marketing Its Brand Image
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