Labour gets the ‘right’ stuff to make media owners see red

If Lord Rothermere is putting money on Labour, the party line must be winning Tory votes – or has the ‘red’ brand a bluish tinge these days? Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent

So the Daily Mail or one of its sister titles, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard, might support Tony Blair at the next election. Their proprietor, Lord Rothermere, said as much on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 – although he carefully avoided committing himself, saying teasingly only that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if one of his papers (he didn’t say which) backed Labour.

That the Mail, that staunchest of Tory papers, flagship of middle England, should even be considering switching to Labour, says almost as much about the party’s recent repositioning as Blair’s assertion that it is now a party of the centre and John Prescott’s claim to be middle class.

Not since Coca-Cola astonished the world and its competitors a few years ago by reformulating the product has there been such a remarkable reinvention of a brand. (On that occasion the president of Pepsi issued a message to his staff saying: “Pepsi and Coke have been eyeball to eyeball for almost 100 years. The other guy just blinked.” Coke’s initiative was a disaster and the original formula was restored. A couple of weeks ago, meanwhile, Pepsi in turn blinked, and changed the colour of its cans to blue.)

The Labour Party is counted at present as a considerable success story in marketing terms, according to a survey of marketing professionals conducted for the Chartered Institute of Marketing, although the findings also suggest the party’s success may be resting on somewhat insecure foundations.

More than half the CIM’s sample thought Labour’s policies were becoming more distinctive – many more than thought the same of the Conservatives or Lib Dems – but it seems only a third thought the party had a distinct image, while almost half thought the Tories had.

Since voters at elections are at least as likely to opt for a party on the basis of its image or the personalities of its leaders as they are to choose on the basis of detailed policies, this is reassuring news for the Conservatives. According to the CIM, Ogilvy & Mather concludes from the research that the “blue” brand has greater accumulated values and is probably harder to damage in the long-term, although the “red” brand’s positioning is currently rather better.

To talk of “marketing” in the context of political parties in Britain is rather misleading. Election law and the cash-strapped state of the parties, especially Conservative Central Office, rule out much conventional above-the-line marketing activity. Instead, politicians have to use public relations techniques – and in the face of incessant knocking PR from the other side – to communicate with consumers (or rather, voters). And PR is a less accommodating vehicle for conventional marketing messages.

What’s more, marketing professionals, many of whom are natural Conservative supporters, are probably an unrepresentative cross-section of the electorate. The most significant thing about the CIM poll is that a sample you might expect to be rather hostile towards Labour has such positive things to say about the party.

Lord Rothermere’s tantalising hint probably says more about the way Labour has changed than it says about any changes at Associated Newspapers. It is not the Daily Mail that has started to move to the left but Labour which has moved to the right, bringing it increasingly into line with the political views and aspirations of the Mail’s middle- class readership.

Some might argue it has done this by stealing the Conservatives’ political clothes in the field of media policy as much as in any other.

Labour long ago dropped its public antagonism to Rupert Murdoch and News International, and no longer talks of finding ways to break up Mr Murdoch’s empire. It is instead talking of amending the Broadcasting Bill to enable newspaper groups with more than 20 per cent of the market (in particular, the Labour-supporting Mirror Group) to control television companies – a stance justified by the same sort of rhetoric about Britain needing major media conglomerates big enough to be global players as the Government employs.

And it has promised BT, which still dominates the telecoms market, that it will be allowed to offer its telephone customers entertainment TV services in return for agreeing to cable every school in the land.

That hasn’t stopped Murdoch, in a lunch with Michael Heseltine, offering to give every school a free satellite dish for government amendments to the Broadcasting Bill which will make it easier for BSkyB to launch digital TV services.

But the truth is that Labour, once viewed with suspicion by many in business – including the media business – has become a commerce-friendly, enterprise-backing outfit as enthusiastic about the economic potential of hi-tech industries and an expanding media as any other political party.

No wonder CIM’s sample of marketing professionals were so complimentary.

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