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