Style matters

David Cameron in Manchester in 2009. Ever wondered why the Tories chose a former PR man to lead them? (Conservatives)

David Cameron in Manchester in 2009. Ever wondered why the Tories chose a former PR man to lead them? (Conservatives)

Could Labour have organised a rally like this? In the old days perhaps, but not now. For they are the party of yesterday. And tomorrow is ours.

Margaret Thatcher, Wembley Conference Centre, 5 June 1983

While the most famous moment from the Conservative youth rally, held a few days before the 1983 general election, is Kenny Everett declaring, ‘Let’s bomb Russia! Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away’, the significant words were those uttered a little later by the DJ’s ‘Megachick’ (aka the prime minister), in a speech written by former Labour MP and thoroughly neutral television interviewer Brian Walden.

There were many reasons why Thatcher trounced Foot in the subsequent voting (by around 4,500,000 votes and 188 seats), but one was the clear perception that the Conservatives were competent while Labour was a mess. One party put on a brash, showbiz-heavy rally (Jimmy Tarbuck! Steve Davis! Michael Winner!), the other staged shambolic meetings with no thought for how they might look to those watching at home. For Labour, it was all a long way from the heady days of the 1960s and Harold Wilson’s slick campaigns, with their speeches timed to coincide with the BBC or ITV news.

We saw during the recent election the Tories’ skill at issuing dire warnings of ‘chaos’ should Labour get back into power. This week, at their conference in Manchester, they will surely look to build on this, not least as Labour again has an ageing unilateralist at the helm. But it is the image one should linger over, not the sound bites. The occasion will, most likely, be an intentional triumph of style over substance.

There is not much Labour can do about the latter, being out of government for the next five years, but as the opposition also appears to have given up on the former, why shouldn’t the Tories seek to monopolise it? If the ‘medium is the message’, only a very confident (or naïve) politician would expect a largely apathetic electorate to pay more attention to the campaign that invests least in its presentation.

The difference in attitude (perhaps also ambition?) can be seen in the parties’ pitches for conference sponsorship, which, after all, pays for the whole shebang. Labour put up web pages offering ‘Advertising and Promotional Opportunities’, but the Conservatives’ glossy brochure is in a different class.

The marketing offers are not dissimilar – space in conference brochures, plasma-screen ad spots, branded VIP lounges and the like – while the prices are not too far apart either. But only one proposal shows pictures of what such sponsorship will actually buy the donor, with the clear implication that the individuals pictured (David Cameron, William Hague) will be keenly conscious of their financial patrons. Show, don’t tell.

‘Advertising is one of the most effective ways to reach a large politically engaged audience,’ is how Labour begins its offer. The Tories are a bit more emphatic:

The Conservative Party Conference is Britain’s largest political conference. Its scale and impact gives businesses and organisations a unique opportunity to reach a large number of delegates, engage with the Party and hear directly from those who are shaping the Party and its policies.

The Conservatives, by virtue of their current political position are naturally more attractive to commercial sponsors. This is the case for whomever is in government – why spend money on lobbying the powerless? In 2002, Labour’s income was over twice that of the Conversatives, the two are now pretty much even-stevens, according to the Electoral Commission. Indeed, the Tories (whose conferences made a profit of £1.8 million in 2014) would be around £10 million ahead if Labour’s income were not boosted by the state grants due to opposition parties and the affiliation fees from the trade unions, which are even higher in an election year.

Put aside qualms over the cleanliness of such a funding system, or the question of whether the potential gains for the sponsors, in terms of influencing party policy and advertising their products, represent a decent return on investment (attention shareholders!). Consider instead the matter of how able relatively the parties are at presenting themselves as organisations that welcome financial support, and how capable they appear of eventually giving something in return (within legal boundaries).

The point is perception. When Mrs Thatcher made the speech with which this article began, her point was clear: if the mechanics of Labour’s campaign are creaking, that suggests they’re not up to running the country either. Unfair perhaps, maybe even disingenuous, but effective.

This week the Conservatives will stage a conference slickly presented for television. Last week, before Labour’s even got going, the opposition appeared not just divided over the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, but also unsure of whether to debate the matter at all. That contrast will stick in people’s minds. The Tories did not elect a media PR man as their leader for nothing.

A decade ago, of course, the situation was reversed. The shambolic 2003 Conservative conference, when the Quiet Man tried to ‘turn up the volume’, in the end convinced the Tories that it was time to ditch Iain Duncan Smith. Meanwhile Labour, despite the divisive decision to go to war in Iraq and the behind-the-scenes warfare at the height of the TBGBs, was still able to stage a well-organised conference, and thus came out of it stronger than it had gone in.

The ability to make a superior presentation has long been one of the tests of an opposition’s pitch to be a credible government-in-waiting. Before Harold Wilson became Labour leader in 1963, the party had already taken image seriously, not least in the Anthony Wedgwood Benn-fronted election broadcasts of 1959, which demonstrated the lessons British politics had learned from the United States, in particular the more professional persona Dwight Eisenhower had projected, compared to his Democratic rivals, on television in 1952.

Wilson took things a step further, however. With regard to television, the interviewer Brian Hooey said, ‘I thought I should tell him some of the questions I was going to ask. He said he didn’t deserve to be leader of one of two great parties if he had to know the questions in advance and I should ask him anything I liked, he would just like a 30-second cue.’ At 30 seconds Wilson nodded his head, at 20 seconds he fetched his pipe, at 15 second his matches, and at five seconds he lit up so that the first puffs of smoke came at zero. Hooey declared, ‘That was professional.’ (Recounted by Alan Williams in Last Time: Labour’s Lessons from the Sixties by Austin Mitchell and David Wienir (Bellew Publishing, 1997).)

Wilson understood that a detail irrelevant to whether he would be an effective prime minister could nevertheless impress his interlocutor, and indeed the viewers. This savvy was also displayed during the 1963 party conferences. While the Conservatives ended up embroiled in a bizarre and divisive beauty contest between Harold Macmillan’s potential successors, Wilson was able to project a new image for Labour with his probably meaningless but certainly stirring call for a ‘scientific revolution’ and the promise that ‘the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry’.

In 1959 Labour had been optimistic of victory only to be hammered. Five years on Wilson faced a Conservative government that had manufactured an economic boom and chosen a new prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, who was seen to be experienced in foreign affairs at a time when the international situation was far from stable (election day saw both a change in leadership in the Soviet Union and the testing by China of an atomic bomb). It was crucial that Wilson had left nothing to chance on the public relations front.

Margaret Thatcher learned this lesson too. The tale of how television producer Gordon Reece ensured she changed her voice, her clothes and her choice of interviewers (less Robin Day, more Jimmy Young) has been well told, even in the recent Meryl Steep vehicle The Iron Lady (2011). Tory party conferences under Thatcher went further than even the presentation-aware Wilson would have contemplated.

A conscious effort was made to remove debate. What happened on the platform in front of the cameras was effectively a stage-managed rally, everything building to the main attraction herself, with a standing ovation to follow, carefully timed to be longer than the previous year (five minutes when she was not for turning in 1980, 11 minutes in 1987 after she had fumed that ‘When left-wing councils and left-wing teachers criticise the police they give moral sanction to the criminally inclined’).

Much the same change was to take hold of Labour from the late 1980s, under the influence of Peter Mandelson and others. At the start of the decade the annual conference had appeared insufficient to play out fully all the rows Labour wanted to have with itself, to the extent that special overspill events had to be organised. By 1989 it was merely a backdrop for the unveiling of a memorable song hailing the ongoing policy review ‘Meet the Challenge, Make the Change’. Tony Benn was unimpressed, and on musical grounds, if nothing else, he had a point.

Still, Labour had proved it too could put on a show, and with this that it had embarked on the process of convincing the electorate that it might put on a government as well.

Yet now the party appears to have swallowed the media and the voters’ doublethink on ‘spin’. Stage management and message control are out, supposed ‘straight talking’ and ‘honest politics’ are in. If, in the coming days or years, Cameron, or his successor, can start crowing, ‘Would Labour organise an event like this? Maybe when Tony Blair was leader, but not now’, it will be a tough claim to rebut. It will have the ring of truth.

This oughtn’t to be an issue. In 1983 the Tories shouldn’t have been able to brag that their ability to organise a youth-themed event hosted by Bob Monkhouse was beyond the wit of their opponents. But style does matter. In so far as most voters notice the party conferences at all, they probably judge them as spectacles – and perhaps rightly. A slick, confident and disciplined rally can be taken as an indicator of fitness to govern; as evidence of a minimal talent for entering a brewery and organising something there.

So expect this year’s Conservative conference – sponsored to the hilt, united in euphoria, with nary a dissenting voice to be heard – to make the task of Jeremy Corbyn proving his critics wrong all the more onerous. Until Labour learns to demand its 30-second cue again, tomorrow will continue to belong to the Tories.

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