Following the example of US presidential campaigns, the main political
parties appear to be preparing to fight the General Election on
personalities as well as policy
The news that Norma Major and John Prescott are about to get personal
press officers reminds us that with the General Election now less than a
year away, political ‘spin doctors’ are stepping up the pace for the
final sprint to Downing Street.
There is media concern, tinged with no little malice aforethought, that
this time it’s personal. That, like the US model, the election will be
fought on personalities rather than policies with the papers becoming a
graveyard of personalities smeared by opponents.
Should we interpret the personal press appointments as a sign of the
parties panicking about potential damage to their softer targets?
‘Communications is always going to be critical in the run-up to an
election,’ says Hugh Colver, who quit as Tory Party communications chief
last December. ‘But with the Conservative Party determined to match
Labour and come from behind, it will be even more frenetic than usual.’
Does frenetic mean dirty? Colver isn’t optimistic: ‘If we look at the US
it’s not very encouraging. The Republicans and Democrats are harsh on
each other and those tactics seem to work.’
When approached, both parties play down the personal element of their
communications strategies but a closer look reveals a complex picture.
Joy Johnson, the Labour Party’s former communications boss has intimated
that she was frozen out by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell after
disagreements over style. She says: ‘Certain people do feel
personalities are more important than policies. This can mean the
message is lost by the messenger.’
It is difficult to get a definitive line on how Labour handles its
personalities. Blair press officer Tim Allan is non-committal: ‘Tony’s
character will be a big strength in the campaign but individual
personalities will be no more or less important than before.’
But insiders agree that there will be an attempt to keep potential wild
cards like Clare Short and John Prescott out of the spotlight when the
Jeff Postlewaite, Evening Standard local government correspondent, is
set to become Prescott’s first full-time press secretary since he became
Labour doesn’t allocate press support to its key politicians, they
choose advisers to promote their own interests. But there is tight
central management of policy statements.
Arthur Leathley, Times political correspondent says: ‘On key policy
issues, shadow ministers are under strict instruction. Instead I often
find myself dealing directly with Blair’s office.’
What about Cherie Booth? If Norma’s going to have her own ‘spin doctor’
and the press continues to dig up Cherie’s past, doesn’t she need
‘No,’ says Allan. ‘But if she’s unfairly attacked, Tony’s office will be
quick to rebut the accusations.’
Nationally the party has set up a ‘rebuttals unit’ to monitor and
respond to bad press, headed by MP Brian Wilson.
The Conservative Party, under director of communications Charles
Lewington, is trying to achieve a similarly controlled and flexible
approach. It has the discipline of the Government machine behind it, but
individuals don’t have the personal political advisers that Labour
The Tories may have officially stopped picking on the individual
remnants of ‘Old Labour’, but they won’t be slow to play the ‘hypocrisy’
card recently seen in the Harriet Harman affair.
On the positive side, with media personalities somewhat lacking, John
Major’s ‘soap box’ appeal may again be central to the campaign. He will
be joined by Norma, increasingly positioned as ‘First Lady’. The
importance the Tories are placing on this is shown by the person tipped
for the job - Eileen Wise - a former broadcast journalist and currently
head of news at Central Office.
In defence, Michael Heseltine has set up a pounds 600,000 ‘bad news
alert’ service involving ten regional press officers reporting to the
Compared with the Tories’ 16 full-time communications staff and Labour’s
20-plus team, the Liberal Democrats have just four.
Campaign planning officer Alison Holmes admits the party has limited
resources. It attempts to build particular MPs as authorities on key
areas of policy, but the only individuals with dedicated press
secretaries are Paddy Ashdown and Simon Hughes.
She attacks the ‘yah boo’ politics of the two main parties: ‘People are
looking to trust politicians in the sense that they are seen to be
honest. People can see through dogma.’
The Sunday Times recently described the process of ‘spin doctoring’ as a
mixture of formal assaults, damage limitation and occasional
skirmishing. As skirmishes between communications personnel gain a
higher profile, will their personalities become bigger than those of the
politicians they serve?
The victors can expect powerful positions in Government and these big
guns in the election battle will find it hard to stay behind the scenes.
Campbell has had trouble staying out of the limelight and Lewington is
struggling not to replicate his high profile. Mandelson is also anxious
to shed his spin doctor image to become a proper politician.
‘There’s concern over the growing profile and power of unelected
people,’ says the Times’ Leathley. ‘The media does tend to overplay
people it has direct dealing with.’
He adds: ‘The election’s going to be very close and it’s going to be
quite a scrap.’