The dark arts of spin City owe little to New Labour

A BBC drama on Labour’s rise to power suggests politicians invented spin. On the contrary, says George Pitcher, the City in the Eighties produced the real Svengalis

The plot of The Project, the BBC drama broadcast earlier this week, was mystifying. It purported to be based on the nine years during which New Labour came to power – in round terms, the defeat of Neil Kinnock to the present day – but seemed to occupy an entirely parallel universe.

The characters appeared to be connected by television to what was happening in our dimension, so we would see old footage of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown saying things that we vaguely remembered them saying. Meanwhile, our heroes and villains would do wicked things to each other and, occasionally, have it off.

Part of the problem was that the central spin doctor was played by an actor, Matthew Macfadyen, who was also the central character in Spooks, the BBC spy drama. One had the feeling that he had just moved along Millbank, from MI5 to infiltrate New Labour.

But this wasn’t its central flaw. The main problem was a vacuity at its heart, that suggested that the scriptwriters weren’t sure what New Labour had done by way of developing their spin techniques – but they were pretty sure it was something dreadful.

In their endeavour to locate it in Millbank Tower, The Project’s producers missed an important point about the development of a spin culture in the UK. Politics didn’t develop spin in the UK, business did.

I’ve just had a book published, The Death of Spin, in which I argue that the new development of style over content originated in the City of the Eighties and migrated to politics, with not a little assistance from Tim Bell’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher and public relations company Dewe Rogerson’s sales techniques, which drove her privatisation programme.

Sure, New Labour’s architect, Peter Mandelson, and his focus groupie, Philip Gould, plagiarised some slick soundbites and media tactics, such as “rapid rebuttal” from Bill Clinton’s Democrat camp in the US, but the whole business of positioning and presentation migrated from industry and the financial markets.

One could make the case that spin migrated from business to politics i

n the US too. True, the presidential system over there has deeper roots, by its nature, in style than substance, but if – as I argue in the book – the business of assertion has overcome any kind of rational valuation of assets, then US industry has been way ahead of politics in practising the art of spin.

You only have to look at the development of straight assertion – the more you say something, the more it becomes the truth – as a means of valuation of Enron and WorldCom and the growth of Silicon Valley, which was to generate the Lilliputian valuations of the dot-com boom, to see that politics is a Cinderella in the finer points of spin.

In the UK, it was commercial marketing, in the shape of Saatchi & Saatchi’s “Labour isn’t working” posters, that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, in addition to a string of business-friendly initiatives that brought commercial presentation to the forefront of politics.

Privatisation was the most visible of these initiatives, bringing with it the challenge of selling the public what they already owned and generating almost a panic-buying desire for shares through what Dewe Rogerson called “the perception of scarcity”.

It also brought the cult of wider share-ownership, which generated a massive and politicised industrial demand for shareholder or investor relations. This, in turn, has created today’s climate of corporate governance, in which both politicians and pressure groups demand the maintenance of arbitrary standards.

The deregulation of the City in the mid-Eighties released the financial markets of London for massive inward investment from abroad, so that they became the central component of a new service economy on which politicians depended for the feelgood factor that kept them in power.

The markets were politicised and, on both sides of the Atlantic, it became a political imperative that, in the raging-bull markets in equities of the Eighties and Nineties, perceived valuation became real valuation. The markets were spun in an upward spiral.

New Labour was a child of this era of spin, rather than its progenitor. Last week, I had lunch unexpectedly with Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s legendary press secretary. He has his own book out next spring called The Wages of Spin (though, to follow the Pauline pun through, the wages of spin presumably “is death” and we’re back to my book, but never mind).

Understandably, Ingham doesn’t believe that the Thatcher governments spun. He argues that, when you lose ideology and belief, all you are left with is spin, which forms the case for his prosecution of New Labour. Surprisingly enough, I agree with him.

It’s often said that, in contemporary society, the secular West has replaced its belief systems with a privatised, pick-and-mix attitude to ideology. This suits capitalism, which markets lifestyles to post-modernists.

The problems arise when we are forced to confront what we actually we believe in. Or, indeed, are forced to ask what our Government believes in. It may be that we believe in lifestyle, capitalism and The American Way. But we had better be certain of these beliefs, if our leaders and such beliefs are going to lead the secular West into war with the theocratic East.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon. His book The Death of Spin is published by Wiley and is available at bookshops, priced &£16.99. It can also be ordered from the Wiley Bookshop at wileyeurope.com0

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