In dissections of the Blair era, ‘spin’ and a focus on surface image, are frequently singled out as key sins of government. Even Peter Mandelson has confessed that presentation took precedence over policy at times.
So what does the future hold for government comms? One person who will do rather well under Gordon Brown is Alastair Darling. The former transport secretary, now looking after trade and industry, has an approach to communications a world away from the frenetic daily announcements and initiatives of many Blairites.
Instead, Darling is a supreme practitioner of not communicating. He has a special cloak of invisibility, borrowed straight from Harry Potter, which he places over problems.
Announcement after announcement has been unable to prevent public pessimism about the future of the NHS. In contrast, transport is of the few areas of public services where the public has become more optimistic.
Since Darling took over at the Department of Transport, it has ceased being one of the top issues worrying Britain, and became one that bothers only three per cent of us. As one head of news put it ‘under Byers, the daily cuttings were nearly a foot high at times. Once Darling arrived, the pile shrank daily’. Meanwhile the public noticed that slowly, bus and train services were slowly improving: the announcements followed, rather than presaging delivery.
In London, the proportion citing transport as one of the best things about the city has risen to 31 per cent. Douglas Alexander, Darling’s replacement at the Department for Transport, is maintaining the same pattern. It highlights a key lesson that our Ipsos MORI’s analysis highlights – talking about problems like waiting lists does not always make people feel better – instead it just reminds them that the problem exists.
If we are now in an age of the ‘new seriousness’, it may be that ministers will be adopt a ‘less is more’ approach more often. While it may mean less work for some communications businesses, it may also be better for the credibility of government.
Ben Page is managing director of Ipsos MORI