News analysis: No winners in the negative election

It was not a great election for communications. Negative messages dominated the campaigns and strategic mistakes were made, leaving all parties weakened.

Eleven days before polling day The Sunday Times published a memo from Alastair Campbell to colleagues in which he claimed that Labour was safely on course for a third term and that 'the job has largely been done'.

That much appears to have been true. His warnings that low turnout could 'hit us really hard' also seems to have been fairly accurate, although it was up two per cent on 2001 at just over 61 per cent.

He wasn't best pleased with our headline 'Campbell: We're home and dry', however, because that was exactly the complacent message he didn't want to be conveyed. The catch 22 of Labour's election campaign was that as soon as it appeared to be doing well, the party's lead over the Tories narrowed again because voters felt the rising urge to give Tony Blair a bloody nose.

Yes, Blair last week became the first Labour leader to be returned for a third term, but the mood is more wake than celebration at Number 10.

He got the thinnest mandate the British people have ever given a prime minister. The share of the vote, 36 per cent, was the lowest received by a party winning a majority in the House of Commons. This time, if anything, it was the biased electoral system 'wot won it' for Blair.

And while a 67-seat majority would have seemed generous enough in 1997 and 2001, it now leaves Labour's 'awkward squad' with twice as much power in every Commons vote as before. Downing Street hopes that the usual suspects will act sensibly, that they recognise that the 'luxury' of rebellion in previous parliaments no longer applies. Yet they long for Gordon Brown to take over and, by the look of some of the polls, so do the general public.

Saatchi own-goal

As the Tories were saying a year ago: 'Vote Blair, get Brown.' That will go down in history as one of the greatest communications gaffes ever - care of the great Maurice Saatchi et al. It backfired so spectacularly that Labour officials made a virtue of it, with Campbell being sent to Scotland at Easter to woo back the Chancellor to be the co-head of Labour's campaign.

But then it was not a great election for communications. Labour started off badly, causing a storm with its 'anti-Semitic' posters portraying Michael Howard as Shylock and a flying pig. Campbell was forced to apologise.

It was communications on the cheap also. Labour cleverly televised the launch of its posters so that they got the TV coverage, but it seemed relatively few of the posters were actually put up. The one that many said had the most resonance, showing Howard asleep apparently dreaming of Number 10, helped soften the Tory leader's image in some voters' minds.

'It made him seem unthreatening, lying there with his eyes closed,' was the response of more than one focus group member.

It is difficult to assess whether the ever-decreasing number of positive messages got through. Campbell's central messages were the economy, values and dividing lines on public services. I am sure that many voters feeling the benefits of years of economic stability were basically happy with Labour to continue. The Tories, though, really missed a trick by not hammering home the message that taxes will have to go up over the next four years and highlighting where the economy may go wrong.

Strangely, the election has left all three parties in a state of flux with weakened leaders. As one seasoned communications expert confided in me: 'This was the "tick none of the above" election. People weren't really looking at the policies but comparing personalities of leaders who were not liked. It was a case of who had the least negatives.'

The Tories appeared to do well in terms of taking back seats, with confidence-building recaptures in places such as Putney and Enfield Southgate. Howard did not break the all-important 200-seat mark but his share of the vote, 33 per cent, was an increase on the humiliating defeats of 1997 and 2001. As a senior Tory told me on the morning of 5 May, having seen the private returns: 'The trouble was that although people hate Blair they just didn't warm to Howard.'

Australian influence

The Tories ran their most professional campaign for more than a decade, thanks to Lynton Crosby, the Australian election guru who powered John Howard to four election wins.

The Conservatives spent an absolute fortune - possibly £8m - on their messages in the marginal seats. Indeed, Labour was shocked at how much its opponents spent on local newspaper adverts on imminent council tax rises.

Immigration was vital to the Tory campaign. But Labour, which was initially rattled by the Conservatives' lead on the issue, skilfully bided its time and outmanoeuvred them a couple of weeks before polling day. Blair's speech saying immigration was 'not about racism but fairness' seemed to lance the boil. It wasn't mentioned by Howard again. Even the Tory leader regrets this now as he believes one last push on the issue could have reduced Labour's majority even further. But as one member of the shadow cabinet points out: 'We were supposed to be operating dog-whistle politics on immigration. But that is pointless when the voters are conscious of the whistle.'

And Crosby acknowledges that the issue of Iraq threw a spanner in the works. He lamented: 'In the last week the issue overshadowed everything we tried to do.' Howard's complicated message about 'supporting the war but not Blair's lies' was too subtle for most voters. Belatedly he failed to convince the people in the final few days that he had a true vision for government.

I wonder what Campbell's final memo to his staff was. Possibly: 'TB back for historic third term. Job done. GB in place to take over, then the Tories in 2009. Will the last person to leave the country please turn out the light. I'm off to New Zealand on the Lions tour.'

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