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  Issue No 78 Official Organ of LaborNet 17 November 2000  




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The Soapbox

Jim Claven on Cool Brittania

'The Centre is Mine', a new book on Tony Blair's assent to power argues that popular culture was an important tool in selling New Labour.


New Labour's political message in the 1997 campaign was based on an evaluation of the potential strengths and weaknesses of new Labour and the Conservatives and identified strategies in response to this evaluation of the two major parties. This evaluation and strategy was detailed in new Labour's campaign War Book. This not only set out these strengths and weaknesses but also assessed the divergence of theme, issues and the balance of risk between the two parties, the probable Conservative election strategy and summarised new Labour's view of the two potential futures facing the British electorate. It set out new Labour's agenda, focusing on its five key pledges. New Labour was characterised as a Party fit to face the future ("a new party, new constitution, united around its manifesto"), a future for the many, in which Britain would be led by "a strong Tony Blair" and in which "we are all better off". The Conservative "future" was the opposite of this - a party unfit to govern ("divided, incompetent, dishonest"), a future for the few, in which Britain is pushed around under a weak Major and in which we are worse off.

New Labour's communication strategy was summarised as consisting of three campaign "pillars" - the three "Rs". These "three Rs" were set out in new Labour's campaign War Book. The first of these was reminding the electorate of the mistakes of eighteen years of Conservative government. These were detailed as twenty-two Conservative taxes (you are paying more tax under the Tories), four in ten eleven-year-old children are below an acceptable standard in math's and English, there have been 20,000 new managers and 50,000 fewer nurses in the National health Service, crime has doubled under the Conservatives and one in five homes has no wage earner. The second was reassuring the electorate that Labour had changed and that new Labour was real Stress was laid on their 400,000 new Labour Party members, the new Party constitution which had been agreed by a massive majority, the early election manifesto having been endorsed by the Party membership and new Labour's partnership with business. The third was rewarding the electorate for voting Labour, with its five key pledges consisting of a limited number of simple and straightforward commitments. The whole aim was to convince the electorate that voting new Labour would make a difference and result in a positive and real change in voters' life.

New Labour's policies were designed also to specifically attract its various target groups of voters - traditional Labour voters and the "switchers". Firstly, traditional Labour voters were appealed to by its policies on education, health and jobs, as well as its opposition to Post Office privatisation. This appeal emphasised giving all a stake in society - "a national of all the talents". Its vision was of a decent society, opposed to the hard-hearted individualism of the Conservative years. New Labour would address poverty and unemployment (through a minimum wage, investing in education and a comprehensive job creation program, funded not by increased income tax but by a tax on the windfall profits of privatised utilities) and enhanced patient services in the National Health Service.

New Labour sought to appeal to these voters (and the electorate generally) with an emphasis that its platform was "inclusive". They argued that while the Conservatives had previously sought to frighten the electorate about change by delivering an anti-Labour message, new Labour's weapon would be "hope". Tony Blair defined new Labour's decent society as one which "judges itself by the condition of the weak as well as the strong," new Labour would be a "radical government", providing opportunities to ensure that "each generation does better than the last", "for all the people, not just a privileged few" - that was the difference between it and the Conservatives. This was reflected in Blair's statement towards the end of the campaign that:

People say that if you don't stand for the past, you stand for nothing. That is nonsense. We stand for strong values and principles. I do believe in a fair deal for ordinary people. I can read a speech of Keir Hardie and recognise exactly what I believe. I can do the same with Attlee and Wilson. What I would not recognise are the prescriptions. The liberation of the Labour Party from out-dated prescriptions, to allow those values to take root in the modern world, is of enormous benefit.

Secondly, appeals to "switchers" were on the basis of new Labour's caution and prudence, personified in the campaign focus on the personal image of Tony Blair, and assisted by the reinforcing perception of Conservative economic incompetence. The campaign focus on the Party Leader was reflected in its manifesto, billboard, newspaper advertisements, leaflet and pledge card message, with Tony Blair providing a personal commitment, presented almost as a personal contract with British voters", complete with his personal signature. This gave the impression of Tony Blair as almost being above the Party, with him making a direct and personal pledge to the electorate. Pre-election polling revealed that this image was successful in challenging voter cynicism.

More generally new Labour's 1997 election policies can also be broadly seen as an appeal to what was referred to as "middle England." This can be seen in various policy commitments by new Labour. On taxation, it stated that there would be no income tax increases under a future Blair-led Labour government. On privatisation, new Labour committed itself to opposing Conservative plans to privatise the Post Office but also opposed the re-nationalisation of what had formerly been British Rail. With respect to trade unions, new Labour would treat them with fairness not favours. On Europe, new Labour's statements can be seen as being well-balanced and attuned to the mood of the electorate, being on the one hand sufficiently "Euro-sceptic" to reassure voters concerned at the potential loss of British sovereignty in a potential "European super-state"; and, on the other hand, assuring voters that under new Labour Britain would play an important role in the future development of the European Union. On crime, new Labour had long sought to make attacking crime "its" issue, with its assurances that it would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". Similarly, new Labour's emphasis that its various election pledges were carefully costed can be seen as an attempt to reassure the middle-class voter. Combined with the publicity given by the Party to its internal reforms and the almost "military" organisation of the Party's campaign machine, all of these aspects of new Labour's political message can be seen as a carefully crafted attempt to attract the support of Britain's middle-class voters.

Yet new Labour also sought to present a policy package, which had the potential to "marry" its appeal to its two broad target groups of voters, the "switchers" and traditional Labour voters. This is best demonstrated in new Labour's cornerstone policies on the future of privatised utilities and the national lottery under a new Labour government. These policies combined enhanced government regulation, new taxes on excessive profits and the connection of these to the achievement of agreed social outcomes. The latter included the creation of employment and training programs for the unemployed and significant increases to health sector funding. In the one policy, new Labour had therefore created an electorally popular and financially sustainable response to the traditional Conservative allegations that Labour was fundamentally a "tax and spend" party. It combined a response which overcame new Labour's inability to re-nationalise the utilities and supported its aim of no income tax increases and the desire for action on unemployment.

The Conservatives dismissed all this as being merely symptomatic of Tony Blair's "lack of commitment". In their view, he would do anything his "spin doctors" advised him would help win the forthcoming 1997 election. Blair referred to this as his having been likened to either "Bambi" or "Stalin".

Blair responded that Labour's priority was to defeat the Conservatives and that the Conservatives were merely attempting to denigrate the Centre Left of British politics. He stated that the Conservatives wanted to reduce the political options for British voters by portraying the choice on the Centre-Left as being between:

a very principled Labour Party that was unelectable ... (and a Labour Party that was) ... electable and unprincipled.

An example of how new Labour communicated its message to its target groups, young or first-time voters were targeted with the "time for a change" theme. Apart from the general themes of the campaign (i.e. things can only get better, bright colour schemes, emphasis on education and employment initiatives), a number of innovative tactics were used to attract the youth vote, including much publicised new Labour associations with youth figures and various innovative campaign materials. In this way, Tony Blair and new Labour cultivated and received the support of popular music figures (such as Blur and Oasis) and sporting figures (such as Alex Ferguson). Blair and his family were promoted as supporters of "key" successful major league football clubs (Newcastle United, Manchester United and Arsenal) - and in the process supporting teams in some of new Labour's key target areas (i.e. London and the Midlands, as well as the North)! His main television election broadcast featured Blair as the young father playing football with his children and he had established a record as having a view on football which appeared to coincide with concerns amongst football supporters. This youth appeal was carried forward in various innovative campaign tools such as the use of a pop song as the campaign theme song, the production of the election manifesto in a youth magazine format, an interaction CD-ROM containing their youth policies and direct mail video to all first-time voters.

This is one of the reasons why Blair sought to demonstrate the difference between himself and the Conservative leadership as being generational, stating in the middle of the campaign that he was "a modern man, from the rock and roll generation - The Beatles, colour TV, that's my generation.

The Centre is Mine' by Jim Claven is published by Pluto press


*   Go to the Pluto Press site

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 78 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Doubly Blessed
With that unforgettable name, Grace Grace is making her mark as the first female secretary of the Queensland trade union movement.
*  Unions: On The Line
Trade unions this week entered a landmark partnership with the call centre industry to improve the quality jobs in this growing sector.
*  History: Conspiracy or Class? The Whitlam Sacking
Never trust a man who wears a top hat and tails in Australia, in Summer. Neale Towart considers this and other evidence of conspiracy in the great shonky dismissal.
*  Legal: Return Of The Lock-out
Marian Baird reports on the increasing tendency of aggressive employers to use lock-outs to reduce wages and conditions and promote individual agreements.
*  Activists: Waterfront Hero Bows Out
John Coombs, the man the government compared to Ned Kelly - villain to the bosses, the big land owners and conservatives, folk hero to working Australians - bows out of the union movement next month.
*  International: Morocco Stonewalls In Western Sahara
Morocco has new king but its old game plan of defying world opinion over its occupation of the Western Sahara continues.
*  Review: The Identity-Shifting Pragmatist
If New Zealand should have an Australian as its first Labour Prime Minister, then it is only fitting that Australia should have as its first a man who spent much of his formative years across the ditch.
*  Satire: Hackers Infect Microsoft Computers With Mysterious Windows Virus
SEATTLE, Thursday: Shame-faced workers at Microsoft admitted today that hackers had succeeded in penetrating their network's defences and had installed a sophisticated virus on the Apple Macintosh machines used across the software giant's operations.

»  STOP PRESS: Global First - ILO Sanctions Against Burma
»  Big Bosses Bloat While Working Poor Grows
»  Union Puts Heat on Bastard Bank
»  Reith Fiddles As Workers Diddled In Shelf Company Scam
»  Call Centre Group Sets New Standard
»  Bag The Building Union Back In Vogue
»  Reith Uses the Back Door
»  Big Australian Blamed As Ships of Shame Toll Rises
»  Public Education Bus Donated to East Timor
»  Vic Opposition Blocks Fair IR Laws
»  More Reasons to Abolish the Employment Advocate
»  Coca-Cola Hit by Racism Claims
»  Souths or Bust!
»  Fundraisers for Burma, Timor, EMILY's List

»  The Soapbox
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Heaps of US Presidential Feedback
»  George W's Words of Wisdom
»  Cancer of the Soul
»  Explaining to to the Gott - Slowly
»  Desperately Seeking George Scurry

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