The Election “a Gripping Spectacle”

This British election looks like providing a gripping spectacle for anyone in our business. We’re still in the “phoney war” stages, with no election date declared, but the politicians are already in hand-to-hand combat.

There’s no doubt that in these early stages, Labour have comprehensively out-manoevred and out-gunned the Tories, and I have a feeling Peter Mandelson may deserve the credit for that. The Tory communications strategy has certainly looked naive at times, leaden-footed and quite simply, not very bright in comparison.

But, let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m not talking about the honesty or competence of the front bench teams. I’m talking about the ruthless, cynical world of election campaigns. And in that world, good guys don’t always finish first.

One of the most obvious areas of improvement for Labour has been in Prime Minister’s Questions. For month after month, David Cameron had danced around Gordon Brown like a matador Election PRaddressing a tired and bad tempered old bull. But then, suddenly, it all changed. The strategy was quite simple, really. The Prime Minister stopped answering questions . Instead , he responded to almost every question from the Opposition leader with a crisp and effective sneer at the Tory Party. No matter that it had been cooked up earlier. No matter if it had little or nothing to do with the question. It made an excellent soundbite, and moved the debate from Government failures to Tory inadequacies. His backbenchers loved it. Radio loved it. The headline writers loved it. Suddenly the old slugger was punching again.

Of course the Tories have been unlucky with the timing of the election, as recession gloom has slowly shifted to hesitant hope. But here again, the Labour Party have played the more cunning hand. “There will be pain”, they have told us, jaws jutting and teeth clenching in an honest, manly way. “But don’t worry. It won’t be just yet”. The Tories, meanwhile, have offered pain and suffering the moment they come to power. So, which do the public prefer? It doesn’t take a genius to anticipate that one. The Ipos-Mori poll shows that 57% of people say that cuts now will damage the recovery. Only 30% are wanting immediate action. And given the precarious state of our economy, it really is hard to see the Tories winning public support when their economic strategy is so at odds with the public mood.

The Ashcroft nonsense has also been a triumph for the Labour spinners. Of course the Tories should have seen this coming a long way back, and lanced this particular boil before it was left to poison their election campaign. But the real triumph has been in the Labour spin. We’re not actually talking of an illegal act here. Nor even real corruption. In fact, his offshore status is not so different from Labour’s Lord Paul. And shiftiness over his tax status should surely pale into insignificance compared with the current ghastly Lobbygate squalor. But Labour have been very smart, making reference after reference to Lord Ashcroft while very seldom spelling out the specific offence alleged. Gradually, the power of repetition has started to bite. Nuance, hint and implication have been more than enough. If you stopped the average British voter in the street, and asked him or her what Lord Ashcroft had actually done wrong, the great majority would have no real idea. But they would be clear in their minds that it was probably corrupt, possibly illegal and stinks to high heaven. That’s truly an astonishingly brilliant piece of “black” spin. Through repetition and innuendo, Labour have turned the Ashcroft name into a potent protective mantra, to be chanted with proper fervour any time Labour sleaze is raised. And boy does it work.

The budget made great theatre, too. Darling’s plodding, steady delivery was probably perfect for a Government whose election message, clearly is “always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse”. And nurse doesn’t scare you with talk of nasty things. For television viewers, though, the sight of the Prime Minister just behind the Chancellor’s shoulder, scowling, grimacing and leering in such a startling fashion might have been quite a distraction. The PM’s facial expressions might be the next fearsome mountain for the good Lord Mandelson to conquer.

Cameron was all fire, energy and aggression, with a good stock of one-liners, more than one of which appeared to be truly spontaneous. Clearly he wanted to send the message of Tory energy versus Labour exhaustion. But it did seem a little unremitting. The tone never shifting. By the end of his onslaught, the viewer/ listener probably felt as exhausted as the PM looked. I’d vote it a score draw. Say, three all. Or , just possibly the Tories shaded it in extra time, with help from the Lib Dems.

So where from here? The Tory lead is in steep decline. One poll has it as low as 2% which puts us into Labour victory territory. And if you extrapolate the recent trend, you’d actually be inclined to put your money on Labour.
But all is not lost for the Tories. We’re still not into serious campaign mode, and once that starts, the media really come into play. And here the Tories have a serious advantage. Look at the players on each team. The Telegraph for the Tories has a circulation of almost 700 thousand. Labour can expect support from the Guardian and the Independent, but together their circulations don’t break the half million mark. But it looks like the Times (just over half a million) will be backing the Cameron camp, too. So, among the “heavies” the Tories will have a marked advantage, even if the BBC tends slightly to favour any Government in power. But when you look at the mass market media, the imbalance is even more marked. For the middle market, the Tories have the Mail (well over two million) and the Express (almost 800,000). Labour have nothing. Gordon Brown can certainly look to the Mirror (just over 1.2 million) and the Star (800,000 plus) for support. But on the other side, there’s the might of the Sun (almost 3 million circulation) comfortably outstripping the Mirror and Star put together.

As the campaign gathers pace, the these papers (and their Sunday stablemates) are going to move into campaigning mode, and this really will be a huge advantage for the Tories. But don’t under-rate the Labour spinners. If they continue to outperform the Tories over the coming weeks, they’ll negate a lot of that media advantage. We could be in for a photo finish.

Terence Fane-Saunders