The changing face of politics

25th April 1997 at 01:00
From Soapbox to Soundbite: Party Political Campaigning in Britain Since 1945 By Martin Rosenbaum Macmillan Pounds 16.99. What Labour can Do By Richard Layard Little, Brown Pounds 8.99. The Blair Agenda Edited by Mark Perryman Lawrence and WishartSigns of the Times Pounds 12.99

Gillian Peele looks at three books that suggest this year's election will herald more than a cosmetic change in British political life.

The 1997 election campaign has already del-ivered some delicious ironies.In a period marked by concern about the corrupting effects of the mass media on political debate, it is a television journalist - Martin Bell - who steps forwards as the anti-sleaze candidate in Neil Hamilton's normally safe seat of Tatton.

At the end of a Parliament marked by acrimonious internal divisions in Conservative ranks, a Prime Minister whose party position looks uncertain is conducting a highly personal campaign designed to trade on his perceived rapport with the general public.

And, most bizarrely, in the scramble for power, New Labour seems to have jettisoned not merely its heavy historical baggage (notably Clause IV) but many of its more recently packaged items (such as opposition to further privatisation) as well, calling into question whether there will be anything for Labour leaders to change if they form a government.

Identifying ironies in an election campaign is, alas, infinitely easier than establishing the significance of a particular contest. But as all three works under review suggest, 1997 seems highly likely to prove a watershed in British political life. Martin Rosenbaum's well-documented history of campaigning argues that we are reaching the end of an era of campaigning as the century ebbs, because of the impact of powerful new media technologies on politics.

Despite the widespread perception that "spin doctors" and "sound-bite politics" are relatively recent phenomena, an increasingly professional approach to political communications has been building since 1945. Indeed, the process can be traced further back. The 1929 and 1935 elections saw Conservative national spending comparable in real terms to today's; and it is helpful to be reminded that the 1929 election also saw a lavish Liberal advertising campaign funded by Lloyd George's sleazy sale of honours.

Rosenbaum's study covers the various facets of political campaigning and gives thorough coverage to such themes as advertising, party political broadcasts and the media generally, as well as to polling and the use of direct mail. An amusing chapter on image creation documents the efforts of political leaders to "colour themselves beautiful" and enhance their appeal by such devices as cosmetic dentistry (used by Macmillan, Wilson, Heath and Major), the artful use of dress, and voice training. Learning curves vary, however. Mrs Thatcher remodelled herself highly successfully; Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home frustrated efforts to make over their images.

In places, a more critical discussion of the various techniques Rosenbaum describes would have been useful, especially when we stray into the realm of Young and Rubicam's "cross-cultural consumer classification" and "people-meter". There is also more to be said about the US influence on British electioneering and the interaction of campaign advisers and policy-makers. But Rosenbaum's book is an informative and accessible survey of the important field of electioneering, where Labour has only recently overcome the Conservatives' traditional advantage.

Communications strategy foc-uses on winning power - not on what is done with it afterwards. Richard Layard and Mark Perryman explore the agenda of a Labour government in policy terms and in relation to the wider political system.

Richard Layard's book is of interest in its own right and because the author has been closely involved with the Labour-leaning think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, and its work on business strategy. Hence it gives a good indication not merely of what Labour should do but also of Labour's approach to the economy, a point reinforced by Gordon Brown's brief preface.

What emerges is a somewhat elusive recipe for improving the economic culture of the UK by increasing emphasis on long-term investment, skills, income equality and stability.

It would be comforting to believe the next government would be in a condition to implement Layard's strategy. It seems more likely that once in office short-term political needs will deflect even the most iron of Chancellors from such a long-term perspective. The net result of Labour in office is thus likely to be very little in economic terms, although perhaps - and this will certainly be important for education and training - even more systematic attention to what schools deliver and less reliance on the capacity of industry and the market to identify their own future research and training needs.

Mark Perryman's edited collection springs from the discussion of an informal seminar group - "Signs of the Times". Many of the essays are an attempt to understand the significance of New Labour's apparent success and to explore the implications of the Blairite "project", about which the authors display varying degrees of scepticism.

Kevin Davey's essay on the "impermanence" of New Labour underlines the party tensions that may emerge once Labour tries to govern. Some of them are familiar issue conflicts - for example over Europe and economic policy.Other divisions spring from the differing attitudes of central and local government and between Scottish Labour and a Labour leadership dedicated to rebuilding its support in middle England.

A recurring theme of the collection which certainly deserves further discussion is the impact on Labour of the shift from class to identity politics and the rise of a politics built around gender, race and nationhood. It is also important that Labour is now committed to a degree of constitutional reform that will inevitably produce further demands for change, a theme discussed in Martin Summers' essay on the elements of a new democratic settlement.

In their different ways, all three books highlight the extent to which the 1997 election is part of a wider process of transformation in UK politics. Instead of a system rooted in coherent ideologies and stable electoral coalitions, we have moved to one of fragmented and volatile politics. But at the same time party policy has moved towards consensus on many issues. The big question is whether Blair's Labour Party can manage such a cocktail.

Gillian Peele is tutor in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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