After six weeks of campaigning, the Conservatives have failed to dent Labour’s lead. Splits over ad strategy and Europe have been blamed. Tom O’Sullivan explains why even Helmut Kohl could not save Major.

It took the intervention of a foreign politician, and more precisely his knee, to light up what was once expected to be the dirtiest general election campaign in living history, but which could well go down as the most drab.

For while the Conservative Party says “Britain is booming” and Labour claims “Britain deserves better” the parties have singularly failed to enthuse the voters with their advertising.

According to Labour sources this has been a deliberate policy to smother anything which might be viewed as even slightly controversial. Labour’s 28 point lead on the day John Major announced the election has not significantly budged – excepting last week’s ICM poll which claimed the lead had fallen to five per cent. That is seen as a success by Labour.

“Both agencies have had their hands tied by the politicians in this election,” says one source who has been monitoring both campaigns. “Despite all the talk of negative campaigns the advertising has been more muted than in 1992 and indeed than in other previous elections.

“It could be a sign that the politicians are getting sensitive to public criticism of negative campaigning. Or perhaps the Conservative Party feared that if it opened up negative attacks it would lead to a spiral of negativity that could only result in it losing.”

According to Labour sources, the only ad which made a discernible difference to its poll rating was the poster campaign in February, which showed a two-faced John Major. None of the other ads in the past six weeks, or Party Election Broadcasts, have moved the ratings.

But the Conservative Party, which has everything to lose on Thursday, could have been expected to be more bold. There has been little mention of the potential cost of the minimum wage, or of the impact for employers of the European Social Chapter – both of which Labour is committed to. Or even interest rates, which will almost certainly increase whoever wins on Thursday but which would seem to be an obvious target to at least draw a response from Labour.

“The only response (on interest rates) would be to stress economic stability. I don’t think Labour could actually say that it would not increase interest rates,” says one source. “But it has not been asked.”

Equally, the Conservatives have failed to aim any serious blows at Labour’s deputy leader John Prescott – one of the few bogey men figures campaign director Peter Mandelson now allows anywhere near Labour’s seat of power. It dropped a planned PEB on Labour’s “winter of discontent” in favour of a direct appeal from John Major. It stuck rigidly to M&C Saatchi – rejecting ads from other agencies which wanted to develop the theme of the real power behind Labour (featuring prominent Labour MPs complete with anti-business quotes).

Even if the Conservatives change that approach in the last days of polling it will be too late. The party appears badly compromised over Europe and, as a result, advertising strategies have been planned and then scrapped, posters have been agreed and then gone up late; and when some advisers have called for a killer blow it has not been delivered.

“The Kohl ad is a great ad,” says one advertising source, “but the Tories were mad to run it because it exposed the Party’s disunity over Europe, which meant it was never able to get back on to the economic agenda – its safest territory.”

Conservative sources admit that the election campaign has lost its direction and suggest that internal strife over Europe, an area mined by James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, has forced last-minute changes. The constant jostling for leadership positions after Thursday has exacerbated the situation.

“On occasions there have been five executions planned but only two ever materialise,” says one Conservative source. “You’d expect some change as the political issues change but the problem has been internal failures to agree a line.”

Pro-Europeans, including chancellor Kenneth Clarke, have forced anti-European campaigns to be dropped. Meanwhile, there have been last-minute talks about an advertising blitz which have apparently been rejected by Major on the grounds of sound housekeeping.

Poster campaigns, including the lion and the tear and “Tony and Bill”, were pulled quickly because “of the mountain of bad publicity”, says another Conservative insider. As a result, Conservative party chairman Brian Mawhinney, who wrote the Tony and Bill ad – suggesting that he does not have a career in copywriting when he finishes at Westminster – is seen as the most likely scapegoat for an election defeat.

Some Conservative loyalists defend Mawhinney. “The general consensus being put about is that Mawhinney has not been buying the advertising,” says one Central Office source. “But he gave M&C more than 11m and it did not come up with the goods. Who is to blame for that?”

But the conduct of the campaigns will be of less interest by the weekend than what legislation the next Government actually introduces and whether it impacts on the world of marketing. If elected, a Labour ban on tobacco advertising could be in place by the end of the year. The issues of competition policy, deregulation and the European monetary union will be central to the agendas of both parties.

“Blair is much more radical than the current Tory administration and we could probably do more business with him than the Conservative Party,” argues the marketing director at a leading high street bank. “But the thing we should be watching out for is sectoral (advertising) bans. In the US, after Clinton’s re-election, the tobacco industry was hammered by the re-emerging ‘Do-good Society’ and there are strong signs that it is coming over to this side of the Atlantic.”

At the start of the campaign the Labour Party was 28 points ahead in opinion polls. No party has ever been that far ahead at the start of a British general election. Its own private polling now suggests it will win on Thursday by between 40 and 50 seats. Not even the spectre of Helmut Kohl, it seems, can save the Conservatives now.

Election 97:key moments

March 17 – May 1 finally announced as polling day. Longest campaign in living history.

March 18 – The Sun comes out in support of Blair.

March 26 – Charles Saatchi said to be back on board for Tory campaign.

April 1 – Talks about broadcasting a TV debate between the two party leaders finally collapse. The Conservatives unveil their chicken (below) and declare it will pursue Tony Blair around the country demanding a debate. But the ill-fated idea, for which nobody at Conservative central office will now take responsibility, falls apart when The Mirror counters with its version – the headless chicken.

April 3 – Labour manifesto casts a shadow over Camelot’s future.

April 5 – Viewing figures for the Nine O’Clock news have plummeted. Over the campaign it loses on average 2 million viewers each night with a low of 3.3 million.

April 7 – Martin Bell announces his candidacy as an anti-sleaze candidate against Conservative Neil Hamilton.

April 10 – MW reveals secret talks between the utilities and the Labour Party aimed at securing a compromise trade on the 3bn windfall tax for relaxation of data protection law. It also reveals that Labour has had talks with Saatchi & Saatchi about the party’s advertising. BMP DDB privately unhappy. Labour’s opening Party Election Broadcast (PEB) stars Body Shop’s Anita Roddick and Granada’s Gerry Robinson. Builds on image of being business-friendly.

April 14 – “Imagine if”. PEB from the Conservatives plays on fear of the unknown.

April 15 – The British bulldog, so long associated with the far-right, adopted by Labour in PEB, positioning Blair as a patriot.

April 16 – Major responds with a direct plea to the public and his own party as the Eurosceptic for all seasons in PEB.

April 18 – Helmut Kohl’s knee and Blair as a ventriloquist’s dummy enter the fray. Perhaps the best piece of advertising in the election, but it pours salt in the wounds of the Conservative Party.

April 21 – Labour PEB, described as “Goebbelsesque” by one Labour source. The most cynical piece of clothes stealing in the election. Land of Hope & Glory, union jacks at half mast and a commitment to law and order.

April 23 – Maurice Saatchi and John Major said to have clashed during a plane journey over election advertising strategy. An ICM poll says the Labour lead is down to five per cent – the worst figure since Blair became leader. Most observers see this as rogue poll. But Labour sources admit the lead has narrowed. The Conservative PEB “Trees” airs. BBC bans Prolife Alliance PEB. The UCI cinema chain refuses to show a Labour ad, designed to encourage voting among young people, in three of its Scottish cinemas.

April 24 – Blair the movie, PEB. The controversial broadcast for the Prolife Alliance is shown but only after images of aborted foetuses are blurred. The Tory’s chicken is arrested in Dover.

April 25 – MORI chairman Bob Worcester claims City speculators are spreading false rumours about research polls “to make a killing” on the exchange markets. Major drops a planned PEB in favour of a five-minute talk to camera. BBC1, BBC2 and ITV broadcast the racist election broadcast by the British National Party. Only Channel 4 refuses.

April 28 – Labour’s final PEB offers an image of what life would be like under another Conservative government. Shot by film-maker Stephen Frears, it tries to turn the tables on the Conservative’s earlier PEB which raised anxieties about Labour.


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