Beware the consequences of political uncertainty

Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, knows a thing or two about politics. As the head of one of the country’s foremost political pollsters and a seasoned political journalist, we should take note of his forecasts as to which way the political wind is blowing. 

Russell Parsons

Thing is, the current landscape has left Kellner as uncertain as he ever has been about what the outcome of the next general election might be. Speaking at the Advertising Association’s Lead 2014 summit yesterday (30 June), Kellner said coalition and the rise of UKIP have muddied the usually clearer picture at this stage of a Parliament.

The Tories have eaten away at Labour’s once comprehensive lead in the polls (the opposition’s lead has settled at 2-3 points over the Conservatives from the more robust 8-9 points enjoyed for most of last year). This narrowing lead, coupled with good news about the economy should be positive for the Tories, Kellner suggested. However, it is far from straightforward.

At this stage in the election cycle, the Liberal Democrats in opposition would normally be gaining ground, taking votes from Labour and the Tories. Not the case now they are a party in Government, Kellner added.

UKIP could win the May European Parliament elections and despite the likely low turnout the Conservatives will be wounded. Their reaction will be key. Infighting over Europe or a further lurch to the right over immigration could put paid to any chance of a working majority, Kellner said.

One thing is more certain, he continued, a working majority for Labour or the Conservatives is unlikely.

Such uncharted political waters lead to politicians grasping for the big idea, the instant wins that will hit home and offer them a chance to govern without the help of any other party.

Likely targets will include marketing.

We have already seen it from Labour. A call for a ban on the advertising of payday loans during children’s shows was made last year, as was the very popular but flawed call for a two-year energy price freeze.

Reacting both to the uncertain environment and recognising the potential popularity of interventionism, the Tories followed Labour’s lead on payday lending. They also dusted down the previously shelved plain packaging for cigarette proposals.

Those in attendance at the Advertising Association’s Lead event saw some clear water between the two major parties.

Speaking at a breakout event, I heard culture and media minister Ed Vaizey do his usual cheerleading for the advertising industry, for its undeniable contribution to the UK economy and for the Advertising Standards Authority – “a great example of self regulation”.

Meanwhile, at a session running concurrently attended by a colleague, the shadow minister for media and communications Helen Goodman was causing a stir by calling for further pre-watershed restrictions on gambling advertising. She did praise the ASA but added that the party is not “afraid of using legislation” and would “keep that shot in our locker”.

Perhaps reflecting the mood in the room that Labour were the interventionists that needed to be held at bay, outgoing Advertising Association president and BT chief executive Gavin Patterson talked of the negativity emanating from Labour figures in recent months when discussing payday loan and HSSF food advertising to children.

It is not just Labour politicians the advertising industry needs to be on their guard against. The Tories have already demonstrated they are no stranger to statutory intervention – on payday lending and plain cigarette – when they smell a vote or two.

Even advertising’s biggest advocate in Government, Ed Vaizey, did not answer a question from Marc Mendoza, CEO of 360 Degree Media and Conservative voter, on whether they would resort to intervention in markets again if put on the back foot by Labour.   

It is not all doom and gloom mind, Goodman did acknowledge that “advertising is an essential part of our economy”, testament to the Advertising Association’s excellent work in spelling out advertising’s contribution to the economy in its Advertising Pays report last year and this year’s sequel on SMEs.

The message that knocking advertising is not without consequence to the economy is getting through. A ComRes poll last year found a marked uplift in appreciation among MPs.

Lead and Advertising Pays and all the behind the scenes lobbying the Advertising Association will do between now and the General Election in May 2015 will try and make sure politicians act with their head. The uncertainty YouGov’s Kellner speaks of, however, raises the possibility policy might not always be carefully considered. 

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