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Big bucks campaigning not what it’s cracked out to be

Posted on 24 January 2010 | 10:01am

There was a moment during Barack Obama’s multi-squillion-dollar presidential campaign when his team realised they had so much money in the war chest that they bought a mass of advertising they probably didn’t need.

That is one ‘problem’ unlikely to affect the Labour Party this year. Whereas American campaigns always seem to do it bigger, if not always better, in Britain there are both legal limits and, this year in particular, more significant financial constraints which mean this is certainly not a ‘money no object’ campaign for Labour.

Yet already this year there has been a good example of how money does not always buy political advance, and how a bit of creative thinking can undo the best of expensive intentions by your opponents.

Thanks to Lord Aschcroft and the Belize billions, David Cameron’s Tories do not have to worry as much as Labour about where the next poster or glitzy launch is coming from. But if I ask you what you remember of Cameron’s New Year glitzy poster launch, the chances are you will remember the row over the airbrushing of his face; or as you are a creature of online political consumption, you might remember the many and often humorous touched-up versions which did the rounds; Cameron with Thatcher’s hair was one that stuck in my mind; others which turned his now forgotten strapline into a reminder of his policy on inheritance tax, or the Tory record on the NHS.

Some, of course, will remember the basic message that the Tories were trying to put over, which was that it was time for a change. At least I think that’s what it was? No, hold on, weren’t they saying they could be trusted with the NHS? I can’t remember. But even if some of you can, and even if you absorbed the message as intended by the poster designers, you’d be hard pressed to say they got a good bang for their buck.

Given the imbalance in spending power between the parties, we should expect more big Tory waves of poster and press advertising. But the shaky start, and the seeming public desire to dismiss and contaminate such advertising, means they will have to come up with something sharper and clearer if they are going to get their message through.

Of course part of their problem is lack of agreement about what the core message should be, which is why they tend to come back to the rather lazy and over-assuming ‘time for a change.’ It is clear that the public want to hear more from the Tories about what they would actually do in power, but the more they hear, the less they seem to like it, which puts Cameron in a difficult Catch 22.

There always was an argument in campaigns about the relative advantages of press, poster, high profile events, leafleting and local campaigning. I think the local campaigns are going to be more important than ever. There too the Tories have a big advantage in terms of the cash allocated to this. But where local Labour parties are well organised, well led and able to enthuse young activists to get involved, they have shown the value of face-to-face campaigning.

I think we sometimes learn the wrong lessons from Obama’s campaign. It is true he used the internet brilliantly to raise money, spread the message and rebut his opponents’ attacks. But above all his campaign team used the internet to turn neutrals into supporters, turn supporters into activists, then empower those activists to fight the fight at street level.

You need some money to run that kind of operation. But not as much as you need for a poster campaign. And as Cameron has already discovered, glossy poster campaigns are not what they were once cracked out to be. In the world of modern campaigning, in the era of 24-7 media, paradoxically the old-fashioned door to door, face to face stuff is what is needed more than ever.

PS — I must for the first and probably last time in my life thank the Mail on Scumday this morning for making my new novel, Maya, sound like a raunchy sex romp. There is in fact only one real sex scene in the book – and you have to get well past page 300 for that – but I reckon a few MoScumday readers will have ordered it on the back of the paper’s ‘political editor’s’ testosterone-charged account.

They have even found a real-life Maya – a former TV presenter they somehow manage tenuously to link to Gordon Brown – and a lovely photo of her in a figure-hugging red dress.

Amid the pop psychology which somewhat tortuously tries to link the book to Tony Blair’s appearance at the Iraq Inquiry – don’t ask, it would take too long to explain – they draw comparisons between me and the novel’s narrator, Maya’s best friend from school. For example, we both support struggling football teams in claret and blue. Well, that would be Burnley for me and …. er … Chelsea. We know most Scumday journos can’t write. But clearly some can’t read anyway.

And no, I did not buy a copy of the paper. The publishers saw it online and pinged it over. For heaven’s sake don’t anyone buy the rag. Buy the book. ‘Steamy and intriguing’ (Mail on Scumday)

And to go back to the fundraising theme, stand by for a special offer we are launching here soon using The Blair Years to raise money for the Labour Party.

  • Quietzapple

    Sunday Maul, Alastair, don’t sully sunday beyond the disgrace of the billionaire press please.

  • Harry Pearson

    why you making your narrator support Chelsea? What’s going on? He’d better not come out well from it

  • Hannah Collinson

    I was an activist for Obama and what we managed to do was tap into the zest and energy he exuded. He inspired us to get involved. We inspired others to join us. Then the campaign taught us how to campaign. I now live in London, a city I know well because we spent part of my childhood here. I worry that there is not the same enthusiasm for any of your parties or leaders. Obama was a phenomenon that unleashed a kind of new energy, a bit like Blair I guess. You’re right that online is where this kind of thing has to take shape now

  • Henry

    Quite so, let the Tories waste their money on silly posters. What really matters is great campaigning at the local level (which, sadly, Labour is often pretty bad at).

  • olli issakainen

    It seems that almost all the parties have now borrowed the change theme from Obama. As far as I know, Obama´s internet campaign was success because it treated voters as citizens instead of consumers. His camp had read their Richard Sennetts.

    Ps. I hope that Britain will not get the best Parliament money can buy!

  • Stephen

    “There was a sigh from the back of the room”.
    “They’d heard enough”.
    “It was the same old story, over and over again”.
    “Same old, same old”.

    This thing was sliding into the ocean. People knew that the opposition were no better, yet they yearned for change. Not change of the government necessarily, but change – any change! So we ended up voting in a Tory government, just because the other side wouldn’t offer positive vision for change “I mean, it was in their hands, yet they dropped the ball. They dropped it big time”.

    Is a steady ship ever radical? Do the labour party need to be radical in order to remain in power? Does radical have to be expensive? Was Tony Blair, “Radical” – yes.
    Will he be remembered in history – Yes. Will Gordon Brown?

  • Patrick James

    I agree that the Internet is a good place for campaigning. I don’t think the style of campaigning by the Democrats for Obama suits the UK. People in the UK don’t get enthusiastic about politicians. We need a much more down to earth kind of campaigning on the Internet.

    One idea I had is that a group of 20 completely random people could be invited to question Gordon Brown on policies, or whatever they like. This would be filmed for 1 hour and put on YouTube. The invited would need to be screened for security of course. In fact I think they should record this once a fortnight during the election campaign.

    I think Gordon Brown would handle that very well. It would chime with the new media idea of democracy where ordinary people become famous for 15 mins on reality TV shows. It would be a modern version of John Major’s soap box.

    After the session with Gordon Brown the invited people would have the opportunity to give their own impression of the meeting in private to camera. Each of these would go out as a separate YouTube video.

    It is true that with random selection you will get some very difficult people perhaps. BNP members, or people who just want to scream out a string of expletives for 1 hour. However I think that it would actually be good if there are some of these people because it would demonstrate a that the audience is random and the difficulties they present would become a talking point.