David Miller: UK Election Spin Mostly Underground
UK Election Spin Mostly Underground
By David Miller
02 May, 2005
More evidence that the focus of election spin has moved from the media to less visible direct spin comes from Labour strategists and Weber Shandwick, one of the world's biggest PR companies.
Labour strategists, shaken over the prominence of Iraq in the public campaign. althought the national polls show a labour lead, Labour are worried because the real campaign is taking place under the radar of the media in the marginal consitituencies. The independent reports that 'to explain' their worries:
one of Mr Blair's leading advisers pointed with grudging respect to a talk given more than three years ago right across the far side of the world, to the National Press Club of Australia. The speaker was Lynton Crosby, who had just piloted John Howard's Liberal Party to an unexpected victory in the Australian general election, and is now trying to do the same for another man named Howard. Mr Crosby pointed out to his Australian audience: "Many media commentators do not see much of the real campaign these days. It does not take place on the TV, on the radio or even in newspapers. It is the local activity on the ground that really counts - letters to voters, postcards, newsletters, telephone canvassing, door-knocking ..." Politics has changed a great deal from the heady days of 1997, when the Labour Party revelled in its unfamiliar status as the clear leader in a one-sided campaign, and positively encouraged stories about the slick professionalism of its campaign's organisers, such as Mr Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, or the former spin doctor Peter Mandelson.
The new under the radar style is not a surprise to PR companies such as Weber Shandwick, since it is PR and marketing companies that have pioneered manipulative PR techniques. these are designed to cultivate covert influence in the interests of their clients in big business and in business friendly parties such as New Labour. In the case of Weber Shandwick this is not least because the company is run in the UK by Colin Byrne formerly a key Labour spin advisor. The Weber Shandwick Election Guide, posted on their website on 18 April notes that 'Contrary to popular belief and historic trends, the 2005 campaign will see unprecedented effort put into the grassroots campaign in key marginal seats rather than a "presidential" national media campaign. '
Weber Shandwick has '75 owned offices in 35 countries' and is owned by one of the big three communications conglomerates Interpublic (the others being WPP and Omnicom). In the UK it offers both lobbying and a wide vartiety of PR services. Its lobbying clients include Balfour Beatty, GKN, Aventis,Bar Council, BBC, BNFL, Carillion, Eli Lilly, Hammersons, Nestle UK, Barclays, Boots, BUPA, Land Securities, Motion Picture Association, Asda/Wal mart, Savoy Group,Legal & General, Tate, UBS, Marks & Spencer and Ikea.
Since 2001, and as is usual in British politics, new ideas have been imported from the most recent election campaigns in the USA and to a lesser extent Australia. In particular, permission marketing, long used by commercial companies, has crossed over into the political arena. The political parties are using surveys and response devices on leaflets and letters to get “permission” from individual voters to enter into a dialogue with them through letters and face-to-face contact about the issues the individual voter cares most about. The two main political parties have also invested heavily in software which targets voters according to their socio-economic characteristics so that direct mail shots and phone calls can be pointed towards those voters most susceptible to a particular message. The Tories have imported an American system called VoterVault whilst Labour uses a package called Mosaic. Theoretically this means that home owners for instance can be targeted with messages about mortgages or stamp-duty.
None of this is visible in the media campaign. The main action ocurs under the radar of the media focus on the visible campaign. Meanwhile:
The three main parties therefore have very disciplined key seat strategies where they are focusing their effort on a limited number of seats that might change hands. They are able to deploy national telephone banks, national direct mail shots, full-time organisers and key-campaigner visits into these battleground seats. In Labour’s case their list of key seats was leaked to the press and numbered 107, all Labour held in 2001, but this number is likely to be winnowed down considerably for the actual month of the campaign based on regular reporting to HQ of activity levels and canvass returns. The Conservatives are known to have had an internal dispute earlier in the campaign about whether to have a “realistic” and limited number of target seats, or a more ambitious list predicated on winning an overall majority. The Lib Dems are extremely ruthless about their targeting and will only really be working in the seats they hold and perhaps a couple of dozen others. It is important for lay observers to understand that the month of the campaign is just the tip of the iceberg – all the main parties will have been carrying out voter identification surveys, leafleting and direct mail shots in their target seats for up to two years before polling day. Ordinary voters often wonder why the political parties are so keen to find out their voting intentions. Canvassing is not in fact intended to try to sway people’s opinions – it is normally conducted so that each political party can identify its potential supporters and then use further communication up to and on polling day to persuade these people to vote and therefore get a differential turn-out in their favour.
The election in 2005 will thus be decided by increasingly covert and increasingly market oriented fashion. The lasting controversies abut the election - aside from the obvious issue of Iraq - will be how this covert campaign has been fought. In particular the huge rise in postal voting and the dubious techniques used by the parties against the advice of the electoral commission will leave many questions about manipulation and even fraud open. The prospect of a US/Florida style stolen election controversy, preasaged by the onset of covert marketing techniques and postal voting fraud does not seem out of the question.