LIVE ISSUE/POLITICAL ADVERTISING: What are the pitfalls of curbing political adspend? - And how are agencies set to react to campaign cash rules, Andrew Grice asks

By ANDREW GRICE, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 28 November 1997 12:00AM

The 1997 general election will go down as the last of the big spenders.

The 1997 general election will go down as the last of the big

spenders.



If Tony Blair gets his way, future elections will be fought on a ’level

playing field’ to prevent one party out-spending another, with legal

limits placed on each party’s budget.



Although campaign costs as a whole would be capped under Blair’s plans,

there is little doubt advertising would bear the brunt of the proposed

cutbacks. Running an election machine is an expensive business, and the

parties are unlikely to spend less on polling, focus groups, rallies or

tours by politicians.



The Conservatives’ ability to out-gun Labour has been a source of

anguish for Blair’s party. Now Labour is in power, it is keen to stop

that happening again.



In theory, the move looks eminently fair, but some Labour figures are

wondering whether it will be harder than Blair imagines to put it into

practise.



One devil in the detail is already starting to haunt Labour: to make the

spending limits watertight, party officials have raised the prospect of

curbing ads by business organisations, trade unions and pressure groups

in the run-up to elections (Campaign, last week).



’It is a sensitive issue, but it will have to be addressed,’ one

minister said this week. ’There is no point in preventing advertising by

parties if it is merely replaced by front organisations.’



Labour will submit its proposals to the committee on standards in public

life, chaired by Sir Patrick Neill, which launched its enquiry into

party funding this week. But there could be problems. Neill, who has

just succeeded Lord Nolan as Britain’s anti-sleaze watchdog, is fiercely

independent and there are signs that he may not simply rubber-stamp the

proposal.



Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University and a member

of the Neill committee, says: ’What would you do if a rich individual,

large company, large trade union or environmental group decides they

want to spend a great deal of money advertising during an election

campaign without necessarily mentioning a party, but in a way that

clearly benefits one party rather than another?’



Chris Powell, the chief executive of BMP DDB - Labour’s agency - says it

is ’bizarre’ that spending by individual candidates is limited by law

but national campaigns are not. But he concedes: ’The problem is that

when you get into the detail it really is very complicated.’



Powell warns that it would be very difficult to stop ’parallel

organisations’ such as Aims of Industry, the right-wing pressure group,

or unions running ads without catching charities like the RSPCA in the

net too. Even if such groups were banned from advertising, they could

divert their money into direct mail which, he says, would be impossible

to police.



The unions are already gearing up for a battle with Labour over any

curbs to their right to join the election fray. One union official

believes the move could breach the European convention on human rights,

which guarantees free speech and which the Government is incorporating

into British law.



’I cannot see how any government could stop us having a voice,’ he

says.



Steve Hilton, a youthful veteran of two Tory campaigns alongside Maurice

Saatchi and now a director of the ’social marketing’ company, Good

Business, can see a case for limiting the parties’ spending on press and

posters because their television budgets (unlike free-spending America)

are limited by the allocation of party election broadcasts.



But Hilton opposes the idea of including outside groups as ’wrong in

principle and unworkable in practise’. He says: ’It is about free

speech; people should be able to express a view whatever side they are

on.’



The Conservatives have yet to respond to the proposed cap on spending

but are likely to oppose the idea. ’I am sure we will be pointing out

the potential loss of revenue to the press and poster industry,’ one

senior Tory says.



Some of Blair’s allies favour a pounds 10 million limit for each party

in the year before an election, with restrictions for other groups

during the period after polling day has been announced, normally about

four weeks.



But a 12-month cap might be difficult to enforce. Unless fixed-term

parliaments lasting four or five years are introduced, how would the

trigger date be known? Before the clock started ticking, the parties

might be tempted to bring forward adspends to get round the curbs. One

possible solution would be annual limits, Labour insiders say.



The Neill committee, due to report next summer, is bound to have

far-reaching implications. Tighter budgets in the run-up to the election

might make some agencies less willing to take on political accounts.

Traditionally, they have worked for little between elections in the

knowledge there would be a heavy spend close to polling day.



The 1997 election was the most expensive ever, with the Tories spending

pounds 13 million and Labour and the Referendum Party pounds 7 million

each, but is likely to go down in history as the high-water mark of

political advertising in the UK. ’It will be the last of the

all-singing, all-dancing campaigns,’ one Tory source says.



In some ways, this year’s election masked a growing scepticism among

politicians about the value of advertising. The Tories were so far

behind that they had little option but to start early. M&C Saatchi’s

failure showed that ads cannot work miracles, and the proposed limits

will make the parties even more reluctant to commit themselves to press

and poster campaigns. Whatever the final shape of the new rules,

elections will never quite be the same for agencies again.



Andrew Grice is political editor of the Sunday Times.



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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