"New Labour’s campaign was forward looking, their policy focus was snappy and simple, and their message was unifying. It was an approach that appealed to those beyond traditional Labour strongholds."
Irrespective of one’s feelings towards the ‘third way’, it is undeniable that, 20 years ago, New Labour’s approach was immensely popular and successful. At the moment, in the midst of populist sentiment, it might not seem that centrist politics carry much appeal. There are, however, relevant lessons to be learnt from 1997 regarding the attitude and conveyance of successful campaigns. The key to success in 1997 was not so much what New Labour were campaigning for, so much as how they approached campaigning.
The label ‘New Labour’ itself connotes innovation and a future oriented outlook. It promises a refreshing alternative to the old ways of doing politics. The Conservative Party’s reaction to this branding was to incite cynicism, through the motto ‘New Labour, New Danger’. History tells us that this attempt did not work. Voters rejected the fear of newness and embraced New Labour’s alternative vision. New Labour framed their 1997 campaign around key political issues, with emphasis on opportunity and societal harmony. Tony Blair's emphasis on "education, education, education" is almost irrefutable, whilst the focus on children places further emphasis on the future. Meanwhile, the claim to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” suggests even handedness and the willingness to resolve societal problems – with the aim of fostering greater unity.
Exploring Labour’s 1997 party political broadcasts establishes how the Labour Party communicated their 1997 campaign. One such broadcast reads as a documentary on Tony Blair’s life, shot as a candid interview between Blair and an offscreen interviewer. Blair discusses his college years, when he wanted to be a musician and was distrusting of politicians, in the same breath as he outlines his vision for the country. Discussion of policy is embedded in the discussion of family life. At one point, Blair ruffles his son’s hair and jokes:
“Homework? Well you’ll have a lot of that under Labour. You wait until David Blunkett gets hold of you. You’ll be doing a lot of homework.”
The focus on education is reinforced, but delivered in a more organic way than if Blair were to address the viewer directly. Through this technique, we learn of Blair the person as well as Blair the politician. The effect is humanising.
Another 1997 broadcast contains a narrative plot, as a magical and benevolent taxi driver, played by Pete Postlethwaite, protects a father and daughter from torrential rain. After his daughter was discharged from hospital late at night, the father is disappointed that the polling station has closed. The taxi driver alters time, giving the father the opportunity to vote Labour to ensure his daughter has a happy future. Once again, the impact of politics on children is the focus, as the taxi driver discusses the potential for overcrowded and underfunded classrooms under another Conservative government. Although only a few minutes long, there is a compelling, cinematic quality to this broadcast, which ends on a positive note.
Both broadcasts served the purpose of softening the often-harsh manner of the political sphere. Politics is shown for its effect on regular individuals, whilst Tony Blair is characterised as a regular individual himself. There are valuable lessons to be learnt with regards to the merits of New Labour’s approach to campaigning. New Labour’s campaign was forward looking, their policy focus was snappy and simple, and their message was unifying. It was an approach that appealed to those beyond traditional Labour strongholds.
In 2015, the Conservative Party embraced upbeat, optimistic campaigning with bright imagery and an emphasis on what they perceived to be their achievements in government. One billboard exemplifies this tone: the slogan ‘let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy’ is superimposed on a bright image of a countryside road leading to a sunny horizon. For reasons unknown, the Conservative Party two years on have decided to predicate their 2017 campaign on negativity and fear. Their current slogan reads:
“CORBYN: NO BOMBS FOR OUR ARMY. ONE BIG BOMBSHELL FOR YOUR FAMILY.”
These words are accompanied with a photograph of a weapon of mass destruction labelled ‘more debt, higher taxes’. A combination of internal party turmoil and poor polling has bred a sense of pessimism among the UK left, but progressives need not succumb to similar negative campaigning. Such campaigning does not inspire hope and serves to reinforce the paradigm that to vote is to choose the lesser of two evils.
Of course, the tone of a political campaign is but one factor in determining electoral success, and perhaps Labour will not synch victory in 2017, but to embrace a positive approach is undoubtedly important. It is through arguing for the Labour Party’s capacity to offer a favourable future that an alternative vision can be conveyed to the electorate. This can be done by individual campaigners. Those who knock on doors can do so to put forward their vision of a Labour government, highlighting positive policy proposals and proposing an alternative approach to politics. This will lay a foundation for future electoral success.
Lily Blake is a Young Fabian. Follow her on twitter at @xvivxcvi