In the late 80s, an eager young member of the Labour Opposition's
front bench team made his mark by attacking the Thatcher government when
its advertising budget rocketed to more than £100 million a year.
Today the boot is on the other foot because the rising Labour star in
question was Tony Blair and his Government has now emulated the Tories
by pushing the budget up to a record £192 million.
Labour ministers deny that they are breaching the long-standing
Whitehall rules that prevent the Government using taxpayers' money for
party political campaigns. They insist that civil servants in COI
Communications, the Cabinet Office and individual departments would not
allow ministers to cross the line between information and
The figures, however, suggest the lines are becoming blurred. According
to ACNeilsen MMS, the media monitoring service, the Government spent
£62.8 million on advertising in the first three months of this
year, making it the country's biggest spender by far. At the time, it
was an open secret that Blair planned to call an election on 3 May, so
it seems a remarkable coincidence that so much of the Government's fire
was concentrated in the pre-election period.
"The Government's policies and programmes directly affect the lives of
millions of people so it has a duty to explain and a right to be heard,"
a Cabinet Office spokesman said.
"Advertising or other paid means of communication are only used when
communication is an essential part of implementing policy or programmes.
There are strict rules to ensure they are in no way party
The Government insists there were special factors behind the 70 per cent
rise from £113.4 million in the previous 12 months to £192.4
million in the financial year ending in March. During its first two
years in power, the Blair administration stuck to the Tories' spending
plans, and spent only £59 million on ads in its first 12
However, the Cabinet Office argues that subsequent large increases in
public spending, including substantial rises in the number of nurses,
doctors and police, have led to a surge in high-profile recruitment.
"The Census campaign also took place this year, a major campaign which
only takes place once every ten years," the Cabinet Office spokesman
Charles Clarke, the chairman of the Labour Party, conceded that under
Labour, there was "a trend towards more active government to try to
influence people's behaviour" but insisted "there is no suggestion that
it was related to the election".
It is true that the departments in the front line of Blair's battle to
improve public services were among those showing the biggest rises in
their adspend. At Education and Employment, the budget went up from
£20.4 million to £36.9 million; at the Home Office from
£9.4 million to £28.4 million; and at Health from £17.9 million to £26.2 million.
But there were also big rises in the departments responsible for
pensions, benefits and flagship schemes such as the Working Families Tax
At Social Security, the budget rose from £8.1 million to £20.9 million and at the Inland Revenue from £15 million to £21.1 million. The Tories claim that these campaigns often fall into the
category of showing that the Government is "doing something" rather than
merely telling people about their rights.
Privately, some civil servants believe the Blair Government has moved
the goalposts on advertising as part of its wider policy of giving
communications a higher profile. When Labour came to power in 1997, the
rusty Whitehall communications machine was slow to provide it with the
efficient service that Millbank had delivered during its years in
opposition. "It is not about asking people to do party political tasks,"
one Labour source said. "It's about having a professional civil
However, some Whitehall officials believe that Labour has overstepped
the mark. They believe, for example, that a TV campaign this spring by
the Department of Trade and Industry, telling workers about new rights
to paid holiday leave, should have been outlawed under the Cabinet
These accept that the government of the day may derive a spin-off
benefit from advertising but state that this should not be the primary
purpose of the campaign.
Labour's case may be weakened by a falling-off of government ads since
the election, which has added to the financial problems at Carlton and
Granada. David Willetts, the Tory spokesman on social security, said:
"Taxpayers are not only funding the BBC through the licence fee, they
are now funding ITV through this huge rise in government
The increase in spend is not the only angle for an attack on the
Government's advertising record. There is also the question of
effectiveness. The Tories are demanding that public spending watchdogs
launch an inquiry into the ad budget hike. They believe that such a
probe would show that several multimillion-pound campaigns have had
Although there may be an investigation, Labour is unlikely to lose much
sleep over it. The rules are sufficiently opaque to allow Labour to make
a case for its campaigns, just as the Tories did when Blair demanded an
inquiry back in the 80s. At the end of the day, the Government calls the