Election: Achieving solidarity in the party message - As election day is named, the major political parties are gearing up their press offices to take quick action to turn to their advantage any slip ups the opposition may make

In six weeks time we’ll have a new government. But before that we’ll see the most expensive political PR battle ever fought in this country.

In six weeks time we’ll have a new government. But before that

we’ll see the most expensive political PR battle ever fought in this


So what can we expect?

Barney Jones, editor of BBC’s Breakfast with Frost, says: ’We’ll see a

continual tussle to set the daily agenda. Everyone will be saying what

issues they think are important, but it all hangs on someone making one

big gaffe.’

Jones was speaking at last week’s IPR debate on the media and the

general election. Among a panel of senior political journalists and

former party spin doctors, he was not alone in recognising that this

will be the most tightly fought, and negative, election ever.

Guardian political editor Michael White seemed particularly depressed at

the likely rigidity of the contest: ’The media now work on the

gaffe-and- split paradigm,’ he said. As a result he believes Labour

spokesmen in particular have been ’vetted, tamed and lobotomised’.

White is of course over-stating a point. But Labour has pulled out all

stops to keep an upper hand in the news agenda and to maintain a

vice-like grip on its spokespeople. David Wilson, consultant at Matrix

Partnership and Labour adviser, says the party has tightened up its act

since 1992: ’Labour has imposed iron discipline and there is a war room


It is able to craft its message and respond quickly. Spokesmen who go

’off-message’ will not be used.’

Peter Mandelson has developed Labour’s Millbank communications HQ along

US lines, integrating its press office with a computerised rebuttal


A campaign team agrees in advance the theme for each day of the campaign

and has stories and case studies prepared.

The approach is not new in itself. Political campaigns have been managed

like this since the days of President Nixon. What is new is the speed

and intensity of the process. One Labour PR adviser said the party had

already prepared 150 stories on a variety of issues. ’The stories are

time-bombs, ready to be dropped into the political debate,’ explains

John Underwood, former Labour Party director of communications. He adds:

’Five years ago the media had a 24-hour news cycle with one daily news


Now the cycle is faster and you need to be ready to call press

conferences at short notice.’

Some now talk of a three-hour news loop, due to the fragmentation and

competition of the nation’s media. Satellite and cable channels provide

new outlets and require a bigger pool of spokespeople from the


So is it really possible to communicate consistent messages and avoid

gaffes in such an environment?

Peter Walker president-elect of the IPR says: ’It’s now impossible to

set the agenda. The tactic has to be to use the Wimbledon Football Club

approach - rough up people in the middle of the field and hope for the

long ball up front.’

Olly Grender, director of communications of Shelter and former Lib-Dem

adviser, says it is possible to control the agenda but it requires

maximum internal communications and discipline.

’The former can be achieved through IT, the latter is more difficult

because political individuals tend to be highly opinionated,’ she


It is paradoxical that while Labour now seems to have this discipline in

place, the Conservative Party, traditionally seen as the more ’top-down’

organisation, has dissent and contradiction within its ranks. Stephen

Dorrell’s recent comments on a single European Currency is a case in


While there is a pool of people quick to crow about the slickness of

Labour’s PR strategy, the Tory Party is more secretive.

It’s a known fact that it has recently re-established its Questions of

Policy committee which devises approaches to issues where there is no

party line. This committee will work alongside the Smith Square

departments for campaigning, press, research and the Chairman’s Office.

Like Labour, the party now also has the Excalibur computer system for

media counter-thrusts.

A Central Office spokesperson said: ’Our set up has grown substantially

since the party conference. We’ve combined the press office with

research and can now cope with rebuttals very quickly.’

While it is less technologically advanced, Central Office seems

convinced its senior PR team of former national journalists is of a

higher calibre than Labour’s.

This could be complacency. It may be that it has resigned itself to


But history has taught us never to write off John Major, especially with

the PR big guns of Sir Tim Bell and Lord Chadlington behind him.

’You’re not comparing like with like,’ points out Jon Barton, editor of

Radio 4’s Today programme, ’Labour has a co-ordinated

party-in-opposition operation. The Conservatives are the

party-in-government, so they have to co-ordinate party, government

departments and Downing Street. This will change once the election

campaign proper begins and government is suspended.’

Barton believes both machines are efficient and the resources involved

means that the campaign will be fought ferociously. But he has another

concern: ’From the last election people remember the PR stunts which

have nothing to do with policy - Labour’s Sheffield rally and

’Jennifer’s Ear’.

I am desperate that the campaign isn’t fought hermetically in the PR


He may be fighting a losing battle.

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