Media: It's people and policies that make polls pick up

Political parties spend millions on spin and hype, but does it really achieve anything?
Click to follow
REASSURINGLY, LABOUR'S landslide victory last year was caused not by poster campaigns or party political broadcasts, but by real political events: a gigantic economic blunder and a Labour leader with enormous electoral appeal. And yet, acres of newsprint have been given over to analysing spin and hype.

It is more than a year since the election, and the books are coming out (Why Labour won the General Election of 1997, edited by Ivor Crewe, and The Unfinished Revolution: The Inside Story of New Labour, by Philip Gould). Looking back at the opinion polls between the elections of 1992 and 1997, there were only two events that caused significant effect: Britain's humbling withdrawal from the ERM in late 1992, which led to a collapse in the Conservatives reputation for economic competence, and a consequent drop in their poll rating of more than 10 points, and Tony Blair's accession to the leadership, which added a further 10 points to the already large Labour lead. Otherwise, all we have is a gentle narrowing of the gap between the two main parties up to the election itself.

How could it be that the mighty brains and huge budgets of the political campaigners had next to no effect? Because the nature of the battle in an election is akin to trench warfare - each side knows how to fight, each has a stock of shells that they fire at the other, but it all just cancels out. If one side stopped they would quickly be overrun, so it is a necessary activity and, as in the First World War, capable of making small gains, but not the stuff of dramatic advances and retreats.

The political strategists are well aware of all this, which is why they have sought to break out from the constraints of the official election period itself into the more open period before the election is declared. Then they can hope to swoop on the other side in an unexpected raid and take some ground in the polls. This is why the Tories opened the battle a full year before the 1997 election, hoping that their vast resources would outgun Labour and gain ground (they had pounds 13m to spend on advertising, a good three times more than any party had ever spent in a British election). To their credit they made an enormous noise (drawing evil red eyes on to Tony Blair generated forests of news coverage), but not a blip in the polls.

"Slagging" no longer appeals to the British electorate (if it ever did). Empty abuse just backfires on the originator as a piece of ill-mannered, though dramatic, rhetoric without serious content, so the potential advantage of a large budget and a lack of equivalent Labour finance gave no useful support to the Tory cause. Labour, however, had learnt from the Conservatives' success in 1991, when they ran their effective "Tax bombshell" onslaught. This has contained precise - albeit spurious - information about Labour's tax plans and swayed, in this pre-official period, a damaging number of Labour-inclined voters. In January 1997, Labour mounted an attack on the Tories "22 tax rises" and the expected progress of the Tory vote never happened.

The small gains that campaigning has been able to make have come from mimicking political events by giving the electorate what appears to be new and damaging information. To be effective these "facts" must be based on a truth and be part of a wider issue, mounted when the other side is not on the offensive.

The best that can be achieved in campaigning are small echoes that gain a few yards. It is leaders and policies that gain miles.

Chris Powell is the chief executive of BMP DDB