Campaign 1997 – How the General Election Was Won and Lost.

Campaign 1997 – How the General Election Was Won and Lost. – book reviews

Tom Phillips

It is a measure of the triumph of ‘spin’ in British politics that party propagandists are now known, almost universally, as ‘spin doctors’. A propagandist, after all, is a dangerous entity, a bureaucrat whose economy with the truth can often verge on the outrageous. The loathsome Squealer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a propagandist. In comparison, a spin doctor is almost benign: a public relations professional, a mere polisher of the truth. The term suggests nothing more sinister than the gentle deceptions of slow bowling. In his efficient, sometimes spiky account of the run-up to the General Election, Campaign 1997, Nicholas Jones reveals the propagandist lurking behind the spin doctor’s smile.

Given that it is now a generally held belief that the media played an exceptionally important role in the Election, the perspective offered by Mr Jones from the interface between the two cultures of media and politics is of particular value. As a BBC correspondent, he is well placed to examine the ways in which, despite their routine denunciations of each other’s tactics, both Conservative and Labour parties deployed sophisticated ‘news management techniques’ – an even more polite synonym for propaganda – to ensure that theirs was the message which was heard.

During the campaign, the author haunted news conferences, made the almost obligatory visit to Tatton and received an apparently endless stream of press releases, tip-offs, leaks, and complaints from the hyperactive spin departments of Conservative Central Office and Labour’s Millbank Tower. Mr Jones is an insider, writing for the partially initiated. As such, he is able to capitalise on his intimacy with the political process to describe the often extraordinarily subtle manoeuvres of Labour’s Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell and the Conservatives’ Charles Lewington and Brian Mawhinney. Since the Election left many commentators feeling jaded, Mr Jones’ vigour in tackling his subject so soon after the event is, in itself, remarkable.

To some readers, perhaps, the book will seem unnecessarily detailed. The minutiae of the ‘tit-for-tat’ campaigns during which the detection of the tiniest shift in policy on tax or ‘Europe’ could produce a blizzard of assertions and rebuttals, tend to blot out the ‘big picture.’ However, details are what modern politics are made of. Broad ideological statements are out. Pledges, slogans and soundbites are in. This campaign was never going to be fought along traditional lines. Old Labour socialism was not pitted against free market capitalism. In fact, ‘isms’ were conspicuous by their absence. The Conservatives and New Labour argued for different priorities but the divide between them, in terms of overall political philosophy, was not so readily identifiable as it had been in the past. Journalists had to scrutinise the nuances of every statement for evidence of how party policies diverged, converged, and adjusted to circumstance. Since the unity of both parties – like most journalists, Mr Jones has a tendency to marginalise the Liberal Democrats – was in question, they became even more avid in their scrutiny, desperate to discover, in a gaffe or a blunder, evidence of a new significant split. At times, it seems as if Mr Jones is describing a particularly enthusiastic Practical Criticism seminar rather than the coverage of a political campaign.

Somewhat inevitably, Mr Jones shows more sympathy for the broadcasters struggling to comply with the Representation of the People Act than for the ‘spin doctors’ themselves. Although neither stereotypically cynical nor overly critical of their methods, he does express exasperation at the latter’s carrot-and-stick strategies and at their continual accusations of bias. When Peter Mandelson, Labour’s campaign strategist (and now Minister without Portfolio), makes a rather childish jibe at the expense of Mr Jones’ brother, George, the political editor of the Daily Telegraph, he finally admits to being ‘a little tired’ of Mr Mandelson’s heavy-handed ‘jokes’. Such episodes do nothing to dispel the impression that encounters between pundits and politicians are often less mature than the average laddish argument in the pub.

That said, however, Mr Jones is clearly impressed by the energetic efforts of the Labour ‘news factory’. Even before the Election campaign started, Mr Mandelson’s team began saturating all available media outlets with stories which discredited the Conservatives and put Labour in the best possible light. Armed with banks of television screens and the Excalibur computer programme, the team monitored every detail of the campaign and operated a system of ‘rapid rebuttal’; so that, with the aid of reams of statistics and quotations, Labour campaigners could answer any awkward questions as quickly and as effectively as possible. In comparison the Conservative party machine was slow and old-fashioned, quite simply unable to keep up. Instead of ‘managing’ the news and shaping the debate, the Conservatives relied on the ‘firefighting’ skills of their old campaigners, John Major, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine. Occasional bursts of rhetoric were no match for Labour’s sustained and polished campaigning.

On Election night itself, Mr Jones describes how he was locked out of Labour’s victory celebrations and found himself on the Embankment with hundreds of party supporters. Clearly amazed at their adoration for Tony Blair, he has to remind himself that they were enthusing about a politician, not a popstar. Even though he has witnessed it for himself, the hardened political journalist still can’t quite believe the success which Labour’s campaign achieved. It is a telling scene and one which suggests that Mr Jones has his doubts about the future. When, during its campaign, Labour’s propaganda machine proved so effective, how will it behave in government? More importantly, how will political journalists like himself ascertain the truth if there are only well-groomed soundbite-spouting spin doctors available for comment?

The extent of the Labour ‘landslide’ will no doubt prompt many more studies of the campaign which helped secure it. Campaign 1997 will certainly not be the last word on the subject. However, as an eye-witness account of the events which took Tony Blair to Number Ten and exposed the extent to which the Conservatives had rendered themselves unelectable, it serves as a valuable source of insight and information.

TOM PHILLIPS

COPYRIGHT 1997 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group