Magazine article The Spectator

Retail Politics

Magazine article The Spectator

Retail Politics

Article excerpt

It is appropriate that the government's annual self-eulogy be sold at Tesco's whose founder immortally advised: `Pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap!' - rather than laid before Parliament. The innovation carries one stage further the subordination of the traditional ways politicians address us speeches in the country, parliamentary statements, etc. - to the way commercial advertisers address us, especially when selling detergents, where almost the only means of telling one product from another is by advertising. Not that we intend any adverse criticism of commercial advertising, still less of detergents.

It will be objected that this is not a uniquely Labour way of going about things. The use of advertising techniques and the employment of advertising agencies to win election and re-election were pioneered by the Conservatives. They first did it before the second world war. Their first famous use of an advertising agency after the war was at the 1959 general election, when they were re-elected with an increased majority. Then in the Seventies, by choosing the Saatchi Brothers to advertise them, they guaranteed the Saatchis' fame beyond the admen's world, thus ensuring that Mrs Thatcher's early successes were sometimes credited to them, rather than to her boldness in questioning the unquestioned and thinking the unthinkable. That made life easier inside the Conservative party by reducing the apparent need for further rethinking - something which unavoidably threatened party unity. What's best advertised is always best. But it dulled Conservative perceptions.

Under Blair, Labour out-Saatchied the Conservatives. The slogan, `New Labour' itself was part of all that. The new product was not so much defined as proclaimed. `New Labour washes whiter thanks to its new secret formula.' How much more at home it is next to the detergents in Tesco's than in the Commons. Its added advantage is that it obviates discrimination in the use of words. The distinction between promising, undertaking and succeeding is progressively blurred.

The idea that a government can be said to have fulfilled its manifesto promises by publishing a White Paper would be laughed at in the Chamber. Best announce it in Tesco's. Stacked alongside magazines and patent medicines it seems normal. Government derives credibility from marketing by Tesco.

How much further can these techniques be carried? Perhaps further than we think. Even the well-informed voters know so little of what is actually happening that they must willy-nilly take much on trust. …

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