ANALYSIS: POLITICAL PR; Policy crusaders are prepared for a fight

Parties devoted to a single issue, be it Europe, guns or abortion, have formed in time for the election but can such policies pose a serious threat to the traditional contenders?

Parties devoted to a single issue, be it Europe, guns or abortion, have

formed in time for the election but can such policies pose a serious

threat to the traditional contenders?

At the next general election, voters will be faced with an even longer

voting slip than usual, with many being wooed by candidates from the

Referendum Party, a new anti-abortion movement, and both pro and anti-

gun lobbies.

These putative parties have generated media excitement far beyond their

actual electoral prospects. But despite the column inches generated,

have the new players actually had any real effect on the main parties or

their PR?

Anthony King, eminent political commentator and Professor of Government

at the University of Essex, thinks not.

‘The new parties are noises off for the most part. I think the

Referendum Party has slightly scared the Conservative Party but I see no

change in its propaganda or actual policies.’

The main parties themselves also dismiss the effect of the parliamentary

pretenders. A spokesman from Labour leader Tony Blair’s office stresses

that party policy and presentation has not been affected in any way.

Sheila Gunn, Tory head of press relations, echoes this view, saying the

activity merely emphasises the need to present existing Tory polices


Even Michael Gunton, former Referendum Party chief press officer,

believes his former employer Sir James Goldsmith is seen more as a

‘bloody nuisance’ than a serious threat.

However, despite such denials, there have been evident, if un-

coordinated public relations spin-offs. According to many press

commentators, the risk that Referendum Party intervention might cost the

Tories dear in marginal seats has caused the Government to harden its

tone on Europe, if not its polices.

Others believe that just the threat of single issue candidates has

affected actual policy in at least one instance: the Cabinet’s stronger

than expected gun ban.

Repercussions have not always been in line with the new parties’ hopes.

Blair’s spokesman says the one way the Referendum Party, and its support

from Conservative defectors, has affected its PR is by providing a

further tool to attack Conservative disunity over Europe.

For the Referendum Party, even that favourite measure of PR efficacy,

column inches, has not proved wholly positive. Although the media giants

turned out in force at the party’s recent conference in Brighton, the

spotlight focused more on Goldsmith’s daughter Jemima Khan, society

hostess Lady Carla Powell, actor Edward Fox, and other Hello! magazine-

type delegates than on serious political reporting.

Indeed, when commentators did touch on issues, they focused primarily on

how the Referendum Party seemed perplexed about what its one policy

plank, the Europe plebiscite, would actually involve.

Such derision has not been helped by the vacuum at the heart of the

party’s PR operation, following September’s departure of chief press

officer Ian Beaumont and regional press chief and ex-chief press officer


However, despite the apparent communications failings of the Referendum

Party, early signs suggest the new anti-abortion party may yet prove

that single issue parties have serious PR clout.

Officially, both Conservative and Labour parties insist that abortion

remains a matter of personal conscience, and a free vote, for its MPs.

Individual Tories have, however, used the issue to knock Labour, riding

on Scottish Cardinal Winning’s criticism of Blair’s stance on abortion.

However, the backers of the as-yet-unnamed anti-abortion party are

determinedly building a PR machine and strategy for the movement’s own

ends. The party does not have Referendum Party founder Goldsmith’s

millions but, it claims, its fight against abortion, embryo research and

euthanasia already has unnamed financial supporters, as well as the

moral backing of such groups as Life, the Movement for Christian

Democracy and Care.

Its PR plans, meanwhile, include a December press launch, where the

abortion voting records of opposed candidates and MPs will be tabled;

the fielding of at least 50 candidates, to qualify for a party political

broadcast; the possible hiring of a PR agency, and the use of the

existing local network of pro-life groups.

It is also digging in for a long fight. Bruno Quintavalle, 25, the

Family Life Campaign’s philosophy graduate founder, says, calmly, that

its crusade to boost the number of pro-life MPs - which he compares to

the 19th century battle against slavery - will take around 15 years.

Quintavalle reports that early support has been overwhelming, despite

the official party launch still being a month away. He says that backing

has been particularly strong from young professionals and students, who

he says have become disillusioned with the established parties, as well

as from the pro-life movement’s traditional church-base.

Even if it does not cause ripples at the next election, with efficient

PR, youth, time and God on its side, this particular single issue party

may well give 21st century Conservative and Labour parties pause for


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