By MARK KLEINMAN, marketingmagazine.co.uk, Thursday, 07 December 2000 12:00AM
'The Conservative Party has a massive battle on its hands. Virtually everything on which it campaigns - transport, the NHS and education - is likely to be thrown back in its face. People have not forgotten that it is just four years since we were swept out of office on that massive wave of anti-Conservative sentiment.'
These words of a senior Tory insider underline the difficulty of the task now facing the party. As a general election looms, many observers believe its central project must be to paint a portrait of Labour incompetence and arrogance that does not reflect back on 18 years of Conservative rule.
For a party that has undergone a mass soul-searching since the Labour landslide of 1997, there is still some considerable uncertainty about what it actually stands for.
With just over five months to go before Labour's preferred polling day of May 3, the race is on for the Opposition to develop a robust manifesto - and effective advertising - which include enough sweeteners to attract Tory voters back into the fold.
'We will campaign on all the issues that matter to the British people,' a Tory spokesman says. While he is reluctant to describe what those might be in detail, it is clear that a preliminary strategy has already been thrashed out. As ever for opposition parties, campaign strategists are keen to focus on those subjects with the greatest potential to cause the government some embarrassment. Namely, the Millennium Dome (Marketing, November 30).
Dishing the Dome
The Dome - that intended emblem of national renewal and confidence - has proved an acute embarrassment to the government. As a symbol of the contrast between public spin and political reality, nothing holds greater resonance than the Greenwich attraction.
'One of the ongoing themes of the Tory election campaign must be to communicate Labour incompetence, sleaze and spin,' says Ed Vaizey, director of PR firm Consolidated Communications and a former Tory parliamentary candidate.
'The Dome fits that blueprint perfectly. The image of the Dome literally screams 'Labour spent nearly pounds 1bn on this, managed it appallingly, then sold it to a close friend of the prime minister' (Robert Bourne, director of Legacy).'
But Steve Hilton, the Tory's campaign manager for two general elections and now a partner at social marketing agency Good Business, urges the Tories to resist the temptation to use the Dome in its ads.
'The Dome is a useful stick to have to beat the government with on a daily basis, but the party has to be careful that it doesn't interpret that as a vote-winner come election time,' he says. 'There is a danger that in concentrating on something like the Dome, they give the impression that they have little to say on the real policy issues.'
Yet Tory leaders are convinced they have other opportunities to strike a chord with voters on matters of national sovereignty and tax. The potential for images designed to identify the Tories as the party of sovereignty will no doubt be too potent to resist in its advertising.
'The government's equivocal stance and Cabinet in-fighting on the single currency have shown it to be thoroughly dishonest and unreliable,' says one party source. 'On taxation, I would be surprised if there were not ads depicting Gordon Brown as the enforcer of stealth taxes and the enemy of small business. It is just a shame for us that the fuel crisis did not last longer.'
Vaizey adds: 'The Conservative Party will always be associated with low taxation, but it is true that, at the moment, we are not able to say where our spending cuts would come from.'
Whatever the strategy that emerges from Central Office, it seems certain the ads will be produced by Yellow M. Despite reports that the party is scouting around for another outfit, Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram insists he is delighted with the agency. 'Yellow M has been appointed as the Conservatives' communications agency from now until the end of the general election,' he says.
Yellow M, which will shortly open a London office to service the Tories, will unveil its first national work in the near future. But it will not be the first work of this election campaign.
That was a Labour ad launched two weeks ago by TBWA/London, in the form of a pounds 1m poster campaign that aims to communicate a sense of achievement among ordinary voters and not a little humility. The four spots depict voters making claims such as 'Over 450,000 infants in smaller classes.
That's down to me' and 'I'm responsible for the lowest inflation for over 30 years'.
According to Labour insiders, this is an approach that is likely to continue until polling day, combined with short bursts of 'negative' campaigning.
Such ads will include the image of William Hague walking into 10 Downing Street and pictures of senior Tories accompanied by slogans such as 'Don't give them the chance to ruin things again'.
Other work will include posters featuring the Victor Meldrew character in a bid to warn pensioners that they would be worse off under the Tories.
One Labour source is satisfied that the counterpointing of anti-Tory invective and pro-Labour messages will prove the catalyst that pushes core voters to the polling booths. 'The party is desperately trying to get away from the impression of arrogance and distance that it has developed,' says the source.
Spin suspicions remain
But another insider believes controversies such as misleading claims by Home Secretary Jack Straw about numbers of police officers recruited under Labour have left a sense of suspicion among voters.
'Rows such as the ambiguity over numbers on hospital waiting lists make it harder for statistical claims by the government to carry weight in its advertising,' he says.
There is also some alarm over voter apathy. Turnout at the recent by-elections has triggered concern that while sufficient votes will be cast to see Labour comfortably re-elected, an apathetic public could allow the Tories in by the back door.
'It is a serious issue,' admits the source. 'But as for any other brand, political advertising has the power to encapsulate key messages succinctly and extremely potently.'
Certainly, Labour will not enjoy the easy ride it had in 1997, but on the economy, at least, it can claim to have been a safe pair of hands. Its ads will no doubt flag this up.
There will be other considerations for the parties, too. Now that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill has gained Royal Assent, a limit of about pounds 9m has effectively been imposed on each party's adspend.
The legislation allows parties which contest every seat to spend pounds 19.7m in the year before a national poll. Straw has already made it clear that this figure will be lowered in relation to the amount of time between the implementation of the legislation and a general election. Both Labour and the Conservatives are likely to spend about pounds 7m.
So as far as the Tories are concerned, this election will be fought on a far tighter budget than the last. Although as 1997 proved, when the party spent about pounds 13m on ads, it takes more than a big spend to deliver a sniff of success.
While Labour's summer has left it bruised, the feeling is that it has not been deeply scarred, meaning the most the Tories can hope for is to bite a chunk out of the government's huge parliamentary majority.
But don't expect to see an attitude of resignation reflected in Tory ads. In 2001, the political ad war might turn out to be cheaper, but make no mistake - it will be as fiercely contested as ever.
THE REAL ISSUES
What is the most important issue facing Britain today?
National Health Service/hospitals 20%
EU/Europe/single currency 17%
Petrol prices/fuel 6%
Unemployment/lack of industry 4%
Race relations/immigration 3%
Transport system/public transport 2%
Pensions/social security 2%
Defence/foreign affairs 1%
Source: MORI poll of 1972 adults from November 23 to 28 (published in
The Times, November 30)
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk