News Analysis: Changing times for political PR

As the political parties wind down from last week's elections, the veteran campaigner and author of How to Win an Election reveals the lessons of history.

The election campaign developed as a result of the extension of the franchise. Before the evolution of British democracy, politicians did not need to bother with the views of the people. Politics was conducted by small elites, cliques and groups built around individual leaders. As the vote was extended, politicians needed to communicate, not with each other, but with the newly created electorate.

Political communications was historically local, conducted between local parties and candidates. The techniques used were the ones we associate with today: speeches, door-knocking, posters, leaflets, public meetings, and even the fabled soap box.

William Gladstone's 1879 to 1880 Midlothian campaign was a Herculean effort to speak to as many voters in public meetings as possible. During the 1924 general election, Ramsay MacDonald gave speeches in 16 constituencies in one day.

Evolution of campaigning

In the 1950s and 1960s, the parties started to centralise their campaigns, and run national marketing activities. The Conservatives, with their natural crossover with business, pioneered the use of commercial advertising techniques.

They hired an advertising company, Colman, Prentis and Varley, as early as the 1950s.

Labour politicians felt there was something distasteful about using the same techniques to sell soap as to sell socialism. Some believed advertising was a fundamentally corrupt practice which would corrupt politics if allowed any influence. Party veteran Tony Crosland remarked ruefully in 1962's The Conservative Enemy: 'After two years of anguished discussion about the importance of public relations, the Labour Party finally advertised for a director of publicity - at the farcical salary of £1,650 pa. This is the man who will have to take on, unaided, the collective strength of Colman, Prentis and Varley.'

This tension, between the local and the national campaign, is characterised as the debate between the 'air war' and the 'ground war'. In the 1980s, the Thatcher victories, with their choreographed photo opportunities, soundbites and spin-doctoring, persuaded political communicators that the air war was what mattered.

Labour responded with a disciplined approach to communications under comms director Peter Mandelson and the legendary Shadow Communications Agency, a volunteer army from the worlds of PR, polling and advertising. In the 1987 general election campaign, the Hugh Hudson-directed Kinnock the Movie was a triumph. But Labour still lost.

In the 1990s, campaigns became more centralised, more professional, and longer. This was the age of the spin doctor. Following Bill Clinton's US victory in 1992, Labour strategists forged close links with Democrat campaigners and learned the lessons of Clinton's success: the centralised 'war room' backed by a large team of researchers; the use of vigorous 'rapid rebuttal' of the Republicans' claims; and flexibility of tactics and lightning reactions, summed up in the phrase 'speed kills'. All were borrowed wholesale by Labour.

Senior Labour figures such as Alan Barnard, John Braggins and Margaret McDonagh visited the US in 1992 and reported the ground-breaking election techniques. Labour's Millbank operation between 1995 and 1997 stands as the most professional campaign structure created by a UK party.

Now things are changing. The age of spin is over. There is a breakdown in trust between electors and the mainstream political parties. This breakdown is part of a long-term process of disengagement from party politics and a collapse of 'voter alignment' - loyalty to one party.

The 'Super Thursday' elections last week were the latest manifestation of this trend, with low turnouts and minor successes for fringe parties, from the Greens to UKIP. But don't forget that Labour's success in 1997 was on the back of the lowest turnout since the 1930s, or that five million fewer people voted in 2001 than in 1997. In 2001, more people failed to vote than voted for Labour.

So political communication techniques must adapt to the rise of the non-voter as a serious political force. Tony Blair's campaign strategist Philip Gould, in a private presentation in October 2003, said: 'We have to transform campaigning so that the battle for engagement and participation is as important as the battle to defeat the right.'

His argument was that political campaigning must re-engage people in politics per se, rather than just be about winning votes for one party or another. The next logical step is 'permission campaigning', derivative of the idea of 'permission marketing' developed by marketing guru Seth Godin.

He argues that traditional advertising is based on interruption. Successful commercial marketing, he claims, will be based on gaining permission - by asking people to volunteer their views or time through surveys, on-line click-throughs or freephone numbers.

But while a company can gain permission to build a relationship with customers, political parties have used up their 'right to be heard' by voters. Now they have to re-earn that right.

Building relationships

So how can political parties 'ask permission' to interact with their potential audiences? They will need to engage in a relationship with citizens over years, not weeks. This relationship building will be a long-term process, punctuated by, but not defined by, elections. They will have to develop better systems of listening to people and learning what they expect, want and need.

Parties' communications must become more lateral, not horizontal.

Instead of the party hierarchy sending messages down the line, successful parties will develop local word-of-mouth networks, driven by local advocates who are authentic and trusted.

Permission campaigning will need to develop an alternative to the megaphone approach of the past. It will become about building a stable relationship based on mutual understanding and trust. Local members will be as important as leaders on the Today programme - a party without a motivated local membership is doomed to losing seats.

- The second edition of Paul Richards's How to Win an Election is out now in paperback.

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