OPINION: Round one to Hague in election PR battle

The first 'unofficial' week of the election campaign - which ended

by common consent with a solid and unexpected win for William Hague and

the Tories - has identified a major PR issue. What is best to sway

people to vote and uncommitted voters to vote your way? Is it a leader

like Tony Blair, who operates in an hermetically-sealed capsule, never

permitted to escape into the real world to encounter real people with

uncomfortable opinions, or one, like Mr Hague, who gets out and about,

and, however untidily, demonstrates that he's a born campaigner?

Put another way, is the guaranteed formula for victory to look all

slick, choreographed and polished on TV? This, it seems, is what Downing

Street believes. If so, we should not be surprised.

New Labour has been marketing Mr Blair like soap flakes for at least

four years and has 20-point opinion poll leads to show for it. So, it

isn't going to stop now, not even if commentators - left, right and

centre - hold the whole 'toe-curling' business up to ridicule, whether

Mr Blair is politically abusing south London schoolchildren or

carefully-selected adults in Leamington Spa.

So we must carefully put the question a third way: do Labour's spin

doctors believe that all that counts in elections is what it looks like

on TV?

That leads to the politically-charged question: do they think that the

British public accepts all it sees and hears on the box and that all

that matters is the impression they take away with them? You might hold

this view if you regarded the electorate as morons and there was no

other media coverage of the campaign. But we have wall-to-wall and

floor-to-ceiling commentary on the whole ridiculous business by a press

which, for all its addiction to stunts, is pretty disparaging about

other people's artificialities.

The result, even before Parliament was dissolved and the campaign

formally launched, was a growing impression of Mr Sham versus Mr Real.

That impression was heightened by Mr Hague giving himself a platform by

publishing a quick manifesto a week ahead of Labour while Labour

spokesmen twisted on the rack of 'stealth' taxes and hospital waiting

lists. This is the last thing one would have expected of a party and

government obsessed with presentation.

We therefore have to ask ourselves whether Labour is weighed down by

arrogance, over-confidence and an absolute belief in its ability to

finesse anything.

Surely they realise that after four years in government and endless

spinning they are vulnerable to attack? The people have had time to form

an impression of their motivation, methods, competence and delivery.

While many allowances are still made for them, there is disillusionment,

apathy and a certain queasiness about their presentational methods.

Their immediate campaign did nothing to dispel any of these

vote-killers. No wonder Gordon Brown, campaign co-ordinator, is being

shot as I write.

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