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Marketing techniques and political campaigns:

the limitations for the marketing of British

political parties.

Darren G Lilleker (University of Leicester)


Ralph Negrine (University of Leicester)

This is work in progress; please contact the authors if you wish to cite this paper.

Marketing techniques and political campaigns:
the limitations for the marketing of British political parties.

The introduction of marketing techniques to political electioneering is claimed to have
led to a dramatic shift in the way politics and politicians are presented to the
electorate. Presentation, style and delivery of ‘the message’ is said to be paramount,
and winning the argument through clear, concise sentences can determine the
outcome of an election. However the concentration on designing and promoting the
party as a brand and the corporatisation of the party structure can cause tensions to
emerge between the Party’s headquarters and the local organisation, individual
candidates or Members of Parliament. These tensions can often be submerged in
pursuit of electoral victory, however, when faced with strategic failures, the façade of
cohesion could develop very public fissures. Drawing on interviews with a number of
former and current Members of Parliament and parliamentary candidates, representing
all the main three political parties, our research found that marketing techniques are
met with hostility and can cause conflict between the different layers of the British
political party structures. These findings lead us to conclude that British political
parties cannot be marketed as homogenous providers of the ideal product and, while
there is a necessity to professionalise certain aspects of the campaign, parties should
also reintroduce a more grass-roots approach to campaigning.

Marketing techniques and political campaigns:
the limitations for the marketing of British political parties.
Introduction – the marketing of British politics

It is undeniable that politicians now campaign in a more orchestrated manner –

re-stating, almost ad nauseum, the line of the day, the chosen phrases and
particular themes – have a clearer idea of their target audiences and rely more
on pollsters, consultants and media advisers. (Kavanagh, 1995: 176)

[It is] vital to reinforce the impression of an innovative party shedding old
associations and image. This dimension will continue to be part of our
communications strategy – a fresh party, new approach, on the move. As an
important basis for this I am looking at our overall ‘corporate’ image –
everything that offers a visual impression of the party. (Mandelson, quoted in
Gould, 1998a: 2)

If a shop looks cheap you expect cheap, unreliable products. It’s the same with
a party. The Conservatives wanted to appear business-like and professional
that meant producing uniform literature, with uniform logos and offering
uniform commitments. You can’t have one policy in Northumbria, another for
Yorkshire, something for Scotland and Wales and another for London. You
either have a coherent policy or your opponents will shoot you out of the
water. In 2001 I watched the Election from home, we [the Conservatives] were
a shambles. (Interview, 19/01/02)

If you walk into any branch of McDonalds across Britain you will find the same
products at the same price, the staff wear the same uniforms and the walls bear the
same posters. Often even the toy that comes with the ‘Kid’s Club’ meal is the same.
Everyone knows what McDonalds sell, they know about the quality of the product
and they will probably have a good idea of the cost. The above quotes suggest that a
political party can present itself in a similar way. Every regional office can carry the
same logo, have the same letterheads, the same flyers but, are there limits to the extent
of uniformity? Can every MP provide exactly the same response to a question
concerning a local issue, should locally elected representatives disassociate
themselves from a local campaign that conflicts with an element of party policy and
can individuals divorce conscience from decision-making? These are all questions
that can and should be posed in response to the introduction of marketing techniques
to the British political party.

Marketing techniques are employed as a response to the increased dealignment of the

British electorate, particular within the context of the post-industrial society, (Lilleker,
2002) and the growing influence of the media over public opinion. (Maarek, 1995;
Lees-Marshment, 2001a) Parties are employing market intelligence in order to
develop a product that can be adjusted to suit shifts in public opinion and promising
policy objectives that the electorate see as key to their own expectations. (Lees-
Marshment, 2001b) This all seems to fulfil Kirchheimer’s prophesy that the changing
nature of society would lead to the emergence of ‘catch-all’ parties, who do not

possess a loyal constituency and instead have to capture a broad consensus of the
electorate. (Kirchheimer, 1966) As Panebianco argued:
Changes in communication techniques are causing an earthquake in party
organisations: old bureaucratic roles becoming obsolete… new professional
roles are gaining ground… Television and interest groups become far more
important links between parties and electorates than the traditional collateral
organisations [particularly mass membership] … the electorate of belonging
shrinks and party identification declines… Electoral arenas… become more
turbulent and unstable, forcing parties toward the electoral-professional model
through imitative and reciprocal adjustment processes. (Panebianco, 1988:
In the modern British context political communication can appear restricted to a
discourse between the party’s highest echelon and the electorate. This is epitomised
by the political debate that takes place in highly stylised, participatory arenas, all
output to the media is professionally produced by specialists and driven solely by
electoral concerns.

The major shift in recent times has been from political parties selling themselves as a
product rooted in the party’s traditions and ideology to becoming increasingly
informed by public opinion. Lees-Marshment notes how, during the 1980s, British
parties employed sales or product oriented models of campaigning. These models
were unsuccessful in developing a credible image for the Labour party, dogged by the
party’s failures in government 1976-9 and its subsequent leftward drift. Lees-
Marshment observes that the view was taken that:
Conviction politics would seem dead… where the beliefs held are not those of
the majority of the population. […] a party that does not listen to the people
and does not meet their demands in any way at all will not succeed electorally.
(Lees-Marshment, 2001a : 132)
This presents the conclusion that unless a party follows the ‘general will’, as offered
through polling research, it can have little or no success in General Elections. Parties
must create a brand for themselves, this links them to a product that is desired by the
electorate and will be expected to reject ideological constraints in favour of electoral

There is little reference in the political marketing literature to how the component
parts of political parties adjust to party branding. The marketing approach views
parties as homogenous; like a retail outlet. The micro level is seen as unimportant and,
where it is given a degree of attention, its only role is to mobilise the electorate.
Political scientists often reaffirm this perspective, though Denver and Hands note that
there is a requirement for local campaigns to include an element of persuasion which
does have a marginal effect on voting behaviour. (Denver & Hands, 1997) However
the perception that the local campaign lacks significance is reinforced in a recent
special edition of the Journal for Marketing Management.1 None of the eight
contributions on differing aspects of the 2001 General Election devote any attention to
the micro party structure. These studies focus on the branding of parties as centrally
organised, top-down structures, whose image is determined by the leadership. This
indicates that the application of marketing techniques has created parties that are not
only centralised, but that the character of the leader and the national campaign is one
that dominates all levels of the party structure. The literature assumes that the power

of the leadership remains unchallenged and that all party political activity is initiated
and directed from the headquarters of each British party.

However autonomous political activity still takes place at the local level. There may
not be the same level of public meetings as there were, but the local constituency is
seen, by the vast majority of prospective parliamentary candidates [PPCs] in the 2001
General Election, as the hub of campaign activity.2 Those who engage in this activity
have varying levels of contact with the central party office, and often have views that
conflict with party policy. Candidates often find the prescribed methods inappropriate
and are hostile to the corporatisation of the party. This evidence conflicts with the
thesis presented by the political marketing literature. This paper explores the
relationship between the central party campaign and activity and opinion at the local
level. Through a study of the application of marketing techniques within each of the
major British political parties, and the way in which the market-oriented campaigning
methods are viewed, we can gain some insights into where the limits of marketing lie.
Examining the limitations will allow us to draw some conclusions regarding how
British political parties can a strategy that involves some aspects of marketing, but
that their strategies must not appear too slick, too centrally co-ordinated or remove all
vestiges of individuality from the election campaign.

The introduction of marketing techniques: the hostilities begin

The historians of political communications suggest that the introduction of any

practices that implied media manipulation, conducting public relations exercises or
the selling of parties and candidates were met with at best antipathy. Conservative
Prime Minister 1924-9 Stanley Baldwin did encourage the use of radio, cinema and
the printed photograph as tools of the campaign and became quite the star of the
newsreel in his own right. (A Seldon & P Snowdon, 2001: 33; Ramsden, 1982) In
1936 both Downing Street and Whitehall were employing the skills of public relations
specialists that researched the economic effects of policies and their impact in terms
of governmental support. These ‘consultants’ were also required to suggest ways in
which a policy could be sold to the government’s core supporters. (Middlemas, 1979:
356) However, despite the warm relationship between Churchill and the media during
the Second World War there is little to suggest that politicians were becoming attuned
to the requirements of the media. Political leaders in Britain were largely distrustful of
the media, even when those journalists were elected members of their own party,
(Interviews, 19/10/01; 09/12/01) and politicians expected deferential treatment.
Labour Prime Minister 1964-70 and 1974-6 Harold Wilson liked to believe he could
control his media image and became infuriated when criticised by journalists, though
his frustration was argued to be a reaction to the anti-Labour stance adopted by the
majority of newspaper editors. (Williams, 1975: 179) Edward Heath, Conservative
prime Minister 1970-4, in contrast, preferred to maintain a distance between himself
and the corps of journalist that pursued him on his campaigning tours of Britain.
(Alexander & Watkins, 1995: 175)

The party machines, particularly at the local level, exhibited extreme forms of
hostility to operating within pre-determined, media-friendly parameters. This is
particularly the case with Labour. Hugh Gaitskell made several attempts at
modernisation following the party’s third consecutive electoral defeat in 1959.
(Kavanagh, 1995: 175) While all attempts to reform the party through the left leaning

National Executive and Party Conference were doomed to fail, his attempts to address
the party’s ‘image problem’ through a public relations initiative at the grassroots was
met with equal disdain. Despite the support of local MP and Party Chairman Ted
Short, the London Borough of Islington Labour Party were obstructive of every
measure. As the Local Government Officer 1964-6 explained, “Islington was a typical
Labour group; scared to death of any suggestion that they were involved in PR
manipulation...” (Interview, 13/12/01) This phenomena has not been eroded despite
the reforms to the party since 1994. As the same party worker recalled “There is a
distrust of gloss, even among the party workers in Romford, where I was working [in
2001], I felt they were a bit sniffy about all of this.” (Interview, 13/12/01)

The tensions between the media and the party leaderships, and between the reformers
and traditionalists still exist. Kavanagh reported that consultants employed by each of
the political parties between the 1960s and 1992 recalled that politicians often
believed they knew best and would counter the advice of the specialists they had hired
to get them elected. (Kavanagh, 1995: 164-71) However considering the quotes at the
top of this article, and the wealth of literature which talks of the professionalisation of
political communication, (Blumler & Gurevitch, 1995; Blumler, & Kavanagh, 1999;
Farrell, Kolodny & Medvic, 2001; Gibson & Rommele, 2001; Mancini, 1999; Watts,
1997) one would assume that such conflicts have been resolved. Indeed, in the case of
the Labour party, detractors appear to have acquiesced in the cause of electoral
success. However the case of the ‘sniffy’ party workers at Romford, whose
antagonism to all things marketing related were argued to have contributed to Labour
mounting an ineffective campaign, highlights the reverse.

The anti-marketing Labour activists in Romford are not alone, as we shall see there is
a core of antagonism to the trend of marketing politics within each of the major
electoral contenders in Britain. The following three sections of this paper explore the
tensions between, on the one hand the party members, campaigners and candidates –
the micro political level - and on the other the central party machinery or macro level.
The discussion will start with the Labour party, the party categorised as the ‘classic
market-oriented party’ (Lees-Marshment, 2001a: 181), we will then move on to the
Conservatives, the party who have failed to add an effective marketing dimension to
their campaigning, and conclude with a study of the Liberal Democrats who have so
far resisted employing marketing techniques. This study will allow us some insights
into what limitations exist for political parties in Britain becoming fully market-

New Labour – control freaks and corporate identities?

Literature on political marketing, and the professionalisation of parties and political

communication rely heavily on New Labour as the epitome of the post-modern party.
(Norris, 2002) New Labour emerged from of a variety of theoretical responses to new
times, these converged with Mandelsonian strategic thinking to give rise to a strategic
response to the Electoral defeats of 1979 and 1983. Following the fourth defeat in
1992 the party transformed its campaigning and communications strategy. (Gould,
1998a; Shaw, 1994) Philip Gould, Labour’s strategy consultant 1986-97, tells the
The Labour victory in 1997 was the end of a journey that started in the 1950s
with the first failed attempt at modernisation, which culminated in Gaitskell’s

failure to change Clause IV [and] condemned Labour to a 30-year struggle
before it was able to gain final, ascendant victory. (Gould, 1998b: 4)

While this created a formidable electoral machine, what had also been created was a
party that feared disunity, a party that could not allow the media to be able to
characterise them as having conflicting perspectives or differing opinions. The Labour
Party's obsession with distancing itself from anything which the right wing media
could pick up and exploit as 'extremist' is well described by Hilary Wainright in her
account of a Labour Party election rally. The Labour Family Fun Day in Islington,
London was a well-policed event. To test the atmosphere, Wainwright purposely
bought a copy of Socialist Worker. 'Slipping it under my arm', she writes,
I returned to the hall. When I came to be searched, an earnest young man
asked me: 'Please could you leave the paper on one side and pick it up
afterwards.' 'Don't be ridiculous,' I replied laughing. 'Why should I do that?'
'Please,' he pleaded, 'it will embarrass Neil Kinnock. (Negrine, ?????)

The paranoia is often treated with amusement tinged with derision, but equally there
is a feeling that the members should toe the party line unquestioningly in order to
secure victory. Even after two years, a time when many former left-wing activists felt
the party was failing the working people, support for the project remained. One
Labour party worker with left leanings made the point well:
Well we don’t want to scare the horses, if we mention socialism now the
merchant banker types will switch to the Tories and their papers will switch
with them. We’ve got to give Tony the chance, that’s a full second term, then
we’ll see what colour he is. (Interview, 11/03/00)
However New Labour’s leaders and policy makers largely ignore the opinion of the
membership. It is the electorate’s opinion that informs Labour’s political agenda.

New Labour's 1997 Election Manifesto has market intelligence as the starting point,
in 1996 Labour conducted a series of opinion polls asking what were the most
important issues to the electorate. Six months later, when Labour’s ten points were
launched, it led on those highlighted as most important with the top three being
reiterated in the same order. (Lees-Marshment & Lilleker, 2001) Furthermore Labour
continued to monitor opinion polls and conducted focus groups to measure the effect
of campaign posters, broadcasts and the wording of party campaign literature on the
electorate. While it can be argued that the issues that were important to the electorate;
health care, education and unemployment, were also key aspects of Labour’s
traditional ethos, the party had become increasingly led by public opinion and was
seen to have lost its ideological foundation.

In the period prior to the 1997 General Election Labour developed a strategy
“designed to project images and receive media reports that would depict the party as
being harmonious with the demands of the electorate.” (Lees-Marshment & Lilleker,
2001: 211) Philip Gould provides some interesting accounts of how the Millbank
machine worked, he tells us that the central element was that “dialogue with the
electorate was constant. From top to bottom, voter feedback was built into the
system.” (Gould, 1998b: 7) Labour recognised there was no real need to promise the
earth to get elected, the Conservatives were seen as a spent force and the zeitgeist of
the election was ‘time for a change’. Labour's pledges and key messages were kept
simple to the point of vagueness and reinforced through repetition. One Labour

candidate recalled that they worked according to the Mandelson edict: "repeat-remind,
repeat-remind, repeat-remind." He recalled;
If I couldn’t do something everyday of the week that mentioned one of
Labour’s five key pledges once, adhering to the principle – and it was said to
us quite often during 1995, and certainly during 1996 as the election got closer
– ‘when you are absolutely sick to death of repeating the same line over and
over again, that is the point at which it is beginning to penetrate the public’s
consciousness’. (Interview, 17/12/01)
It is argued that this tactic was successful. As one study found, Labour benefited from
an electorate that subconsciously “weights the utility of a given policy by the
probability of its being implemented and sums this across the different policies.”
(Heath, Jowell & Curtis, 2001: 159) Labour's modest promises to do;
just a bit more here, a bit better for hospitals, schools, youth crime, all
reinforced by D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better,’ were accepted on face
value as a reaction to what some described as ‘eighteen years of Tory misrule’.
(Toynbee & Walker, 2001: 2)

At the 1997 and 2001 General Elections Labour candidates, particularly those
standing in key marginal constituencies, were expected to act as advocates for the
party line. This was not simply a case of repeating identical messages, on the same
day as the leaders. No candidate was allowed to back a cause that would conflict with
party policy; this highlights the fear of potential embarrassment that plagues the
Labour leadership. One MP found that his campaign literature, produced for him by
the regional office, had been censored; sections supporting local organic farms had
been removed. (Interview, 08/01/02) Three candidates who sent a letter to The Times
criticising Robin Cook and Menzies Campbell's chapter on Europe in The Progressive
Century (Lawson & Sherlock, 2001) came under attack from the regional and national
offices. “We all got phone calls… they said ‘we don’t need this, there’s a General
Election coming, don’t wash our dirty laundry in public’.” (Interview, 04/01/02)
More damagingly the regional office ordered that David Locke could not offer to
support the reinstatement of emergency treatment at Kidderminster Hospital3 as “it
was not party policy to single out any particular case or reverse the policy of a
government department.” (Interview, 04/01/02) This lost Locke his Wyre Forest seat
to the independent Dr Richard Taylor. The conclusion we can reach is that it was
more important for Labour to present a united image than to win one seat. This
practice has received criticism from some candidates4 and there is evidence of
discomfort among some constituency parties.

Paul Marsden, who left Labour to join the Liberal Democrats in December 2001,
delivered the first public condemnation of New Labour's obsession with discipline. In
a press statement he declared:
I have lost confidence in the Labour Government, I've had enough of their
obsession with control freakery and spin… I have experienced enough Labour
intolerance in recent weeks to last a lifetime. I want to belong to a party which
encourages debate and practices genuine internal democracy.
He went on to blame Blair for much of the intolerance. “Tony Blair is behaving in an
increasingly arrogant and presidential manner. His party believes in threats and
intimidation to crush internal dissent.”5 Marsden is not alone in voicing disquiet about
the Blair measures for maintaining discipline.

In the prelude to the 1997 General Election candidates recognised the necessity for
exorcising the ghost of 1983, however once Labour's landslide was realised many
expected discipline to be relaxed and for Labour to adopt more traditionally socialist
spending policies. Minor rebellions over cuts to single parent benefit and the ending
of student grants ensued. Candidates interviewed stressed being dissatisfied with the
lack of democracy and argued that they found from doorstep campaigning that this,
more than any other factor, was ‘turning the voters off’. (Interview, 18/02/02) One
candidate argued he had to be extremely careful when deciding how to run his
I saw my job as being quite loyal to the line, but the Labour party has this
image of control and toeing the party line and candidates not having their own
mind, and the public are getting sick of that. There is a need, a fine art, of
being loyal, but to appearing that you have an independent mind. (interview,
Others found it very difficult to run an effective campaign.

The modern campaign, as highlighted by Denver and Hands, depends upon resources
supplied by party headquarters. If these are not given, either due to hostility to a
particular candidate or because the seat is deemed unwinnable, the candidate is
reasonably free to say and do what they like. One candidate campaigning in a safe
Conservative seat testified: “we were asked to keep our regional press officer
informed of what we were doing but… there was no direct interference.” (Interviews,
27/11/01; 11/03/02) Only if the candidate received national attention that embarrassed
Labour would the party attempt to kerb the activities of that candidate. However if
the candidate was fighting a target seat, so requiring greater resources, that meant
allowing the 'party machine' to interfere in campaign activities. One candidate
described Labour techniques in glowing terms:
“The Labour party machine is phenomenal, being able to put so many bits of
glossy paper through an individual’s door, all tailor-made mailshots so that the
person is addressed and they focus on a number of issues that you know the
voter identifies with. Making sure there is personal phone calls from the
candidate… so on and so forth… it doesn’t go like clockwork, but it is bloody
professional. (Interview, 06/01/02)
However the same candidate argued that the party was ill-equipped to fight a local
campaign; the regional and national structures were detached from the local issues
and context.
You've got to know what is happening locally, so you’ve got to break up the
party machine and return it back down to the local level. Say ‘here’s your
resources, we’ll give you the support, the training, the media management
techniques, but then let go. They wont! (Interview, 06/01/02)
This was a theme running through the arguments of a number of candidates: the
importance of local control and local issues. However does this mean that a party can
only market itself at the local level, that the national or overarching persona actually
hinders the party from campaigning where many assume that it matters; in the

Many of the former MPs interviewed in the course of this research stressed that
constituency campaigning was of very high importance; a belief voiced by MPs
representing all parties. An MP who ignored the local issues was 'committing political
suicide' as an opponent could fill this gap; a tactic used to great effect by the Liberal

Democrats in recent years. Therefore there is much criticism of the New Labour style
among many former Labour MPs, none of whom can be called 'Old Labour left-
wingers'. They see that careerism within the party means adhering to party dictates.
One former MP, who retired in 2001, argued “they don’t have the balls that our
generation had. We would stand up and be counted on any unpopular subject.”
(Interview, 19/09/01) Another claimed that discipline was impossible and that dissent
“is part of the normal, free, democratic process of the party.” (Interview, 23/10/01) A
former moderniser criticised the “lick spittles… toadies [and] self obsessed yuppies”
who populated the Blair leadership recalling that “one [sh]ould go along with the
Labour programme unless you feel something is wrong.” (Interview, 31/10/01) The
former MPs see that the loci of control has shifted, as one Labour loyalist noted: “The
route to [becoming a candidate] now is to win approbation of the centre first… In the
1970s if you kept the confidence of your constituency that was recognised as making
you safe.” (Interview, 19/10/01) Central control is seen, almost universally, as counter
productive; both in terms of campaigning and maintaining a role as a constituency
representative. This is exemplified by the case of Wyre Forest; this was a disaster for
Labour's strategy, however, it was an affordable loss and must have been calculated as
more acceptable than acting diffidently over policy. However some argue that this
strategy is doomed to fail. One current MP noted that, currently Labour’s market-
orientation is successful, but with an effective opposition and a dissatisfied electorate
the next General Election will determine whether such techniques have any realistic
chances for longevity.
1997 was very successful. 2001 not as much, but reasonably successful. 2004
or 5 no. They’ll fall flat on their face because the voters have wised up now.
I've seen this on the doorsteps… ‘Oh god, bloody New Labour again’… If
they use the same glossy techniques again it will fail… [the voters] don’t like
the style now, they want the barebones of honest politics… trying to get it
down to the local level is the key… It was understandable in the run up to
1997 to have some strong discipline… but they should have eased off, but they
can’t. They don’t know how to. (Interview, 08/01/02)

Evidence suggests that New Labour is not unaware of the hostilities within the party.
Party Chairman Charles Clarke is considering reforming the policy making procedure
to re-empower the membership in order to stimulate the levels of local support back to
their pre-1997 levels.6 Furthermore, during the 2001 General Election Peter
Mandelson called for reductions to the emphasis on presentation. (Moloney &
Colmer, 2002: 964) There were also moves to return party spin doctors to a role of
invisible press officers, though this was to lessen criticism rather than to reduce
attempts at media manipulation. (Moloney & Colmer, 2002: 966) The revelations that
civil servant and press officer Jo Moore had advised her Minister to ‘bury bad news’
beneath the events of 9 September 2001, and similar allegations at the time of the
death of Princess Margaret, proved that Labour were still manipulating news cynically
and the media continued to focus attention on the party spin-doctors.

Clearly the focus upon internal discipline is driven by a fear of appearing divided.
This is a corollary of the dark days of the 1980s. The left versus centre dichotomy
fatally damaged Labour’s electoral credibility and led to dramatic policy reforms
which allowed the leadership control over the party line. Despite two election
victories this practice remains unchanged. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw highlighted

the problems faced when discussing allegations that the leadership was divided on the
issue of European integration.
As members of the government, on the one hand we are always accused of
operating from a single script. But if we use different syntax, different
grammar, to explain a particular point of view, the next thing is there are
headlines about government splits. (The Guardian, 07/01/02)
This may be overstating the point, surely neither syntax nor grammar can lead to a
perception of division? Michael White, Guardian correspondent, disagrees. He
happily admits that journalists are indeed seeking to trip up the government by
revealing any inconsistencies:
that is precisely the legacy of New Labour’s on-message centralising
discipline since 1994. They were never quite as good as they told each other…
now they are reaping the whirlwind. (The Guardian, 07/01/02)

The Conservatives – failed marketers?

The Conservative party ethos offers few tensions with notions of marketing. The late
Conservative MP Alan Clark described the first rule of the party’s politics as “that the
pursuit of power is the criterion against which all policy decisions should in the last
resort be judged.” (Clark, 1998: 396) The conflicts during the 1970s were not with
using techniques for selling the party; disputes surrounded the packaging. Edward
Heath, party leader 1965-75 and Prime Minister 1970-74, saw himself as the better
judge of what to say, how to phrase it, what the policies were and how to offer them
to the people. (Kavanagh, 1995: 165) Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister 1979-90,
had similar strong opinions and reservations, however was more than willing to
introduce marketing techniques to political campaigning.

The Conservative campaign was given a more professional look, and many of these
techniques were employed within constituencies, (Thomas, 1989) however local
electioneering continued in the same form as it had for decades. Though corporate
imagery was introduced, uniformity of message could only be achieved by promise of
favours. A Derbyshire Conservative MP opposed Thatcher's legislation designed to
kerb Trade Union power and actively supported local miners in his campaign
literature. While this earned him little respect from the party leader, at no time was
there a hint of attempting to make him adhere to the party line. (Interview, 03/10/01)

This is the continuing picture of the Conservative party campaign. The divisions over
policy towards the European Union, and in particular European Monetary Union, was
capitalised on by the media to provide the party with an image of being divided and
having an incoherent policy. The media created the perception that the Conservatives
refused to define policy messages or that the party members were doing the job
incompetently. (Wring, 2001: 920) Conservative academics and commentators seem
to lean towards the latter perspective of the party, and there are indications that the
party mounted attempts to provide a unified core message. The 2001 General Election
focused on 'Keep the Pound' and numerous rallies were organised. On ‘Keep the
Pound Day’ all Conservative candidates were expected to have stalls in their
constituencies, handing out leaflets and stickers and informing people about
Conservative policy. The material was all produced by central office and distributed
by the Regional Campaign Manager, therefore every candidate had identical publicity
presenting an identical message. However candidates did not have to take part. Those

who supported European integration could remain inactive or, alternatively, organise
their own event.

The area where the Conservatives receive most criticism is their lack of market
research. Because the party lacks a wealth of ideological baggage they could have
presented a policy derived from populist concerns. Instead the Conservatives
instituted a process of intra-party democratisation; thus it was the party members who
were to determine the agenda for the 2001 General Election. This led the party to
adopt a stance that pandered to sentimental attachments for the British pound and an
opposition to the increasing number of foreign nationals seeking asylum in the UK.
These did not gain support because; firstly 2001 was not the last chance to save the
pound, a referendum had been promised; (Interview, 16/01/02) secondly the party
itself had an image problem. The Conservatives image as being ‘out-of-touch’ seems
proven by the policies which the empowerment of members offered following the
1997 party conference. The members views were “at odds with those of the voters”,
and as Lees-Marshment and Quayle suggest:
Electoral imperatives dictate (and political marketing advises) that the party
should formulate a policy programme on the basis of input from the wider
electorate, not just the membership, and that the leadership should have a firm
grip on policy-making. (Lees-Marshment & Quayle, 2001: 208)

The lack of reference to the provision of welfare, and the stress upon dealing swiftly
with bogus asylum seekers, presented the Conservatives as uncaring. These failings
were compounded by the media image of leader William Hague, who was unable to
expunge his appearance at a Conservative Conference as a sixteen-year-old. These
problems lead Anthony Seldon to argue that the Conservatives needed to learn some
lessons from the Labour party. Seldon observed that the Conservatives had emulated
key aspects of the ‘Millbank model’, though with mixed results, but that the key
problem was that the leadership had failed to accept why they had been defeated in
1997 or how to reverse the situation in which they found themselves. (Seldon &
Snowdon, 2001: 10; Kavanagh, 2001) Seldon and Snowdon’s prescription is
“Reconnecting with… [and] articulating the concerns that [are] most important to the
middle class and to a large share of the working class.” (Seldon & Snowdon, 2001:
44) More importantly, however, is “organisational renewal… on four levels: strong
and effective leadership… find[ing] new ways to appeal to the young… devis[ing] a
successful media strategy… [and] reviv[ing] at a local level” (Seldon & Snowdon,
2001: 48-9)

In contrast to the Labour party, these notions are not met with hostility from MPs or
candidates, the main problem for the Conservatives is the party membership. If the
party does follow the advise of Seldon, or that of marketing literature will this cause a
gulf between the parliamentary party and the foot soldiers in the constituency parties.
The Conservatives may not find this as greater problem as was the case of Labour in
the 1980s, as one study observed
The stress placed upon loyalty… is an instinct as old as politics itself. The
Conservative stress on pragmatism, compromise and the tempering of policy
has its roots in the fear that confrontation between factions within the
privileged groups could of itself undermine the whole structure of the political
organisation of society. (Norton & Aughey, 1981: 50-1)

However this view contrasts with the intra-party fighting that has taken place between
the pro and anti-Europe factions over the last ten years. The leadership election of
2001 was coloured by the issue of Europe, the fact that the anti-Europe lobby appear
to have been successful could mean that the notion will be submerged but,
alternatively, could indicate dissent is only in abeyance. These are all imponderables
at present, what is clear though is that there is widespread demand for change.

Many Conservative candidates are happy to blame William Hague for the defeat of
the party in 2001. In an interview the day after the 2001 Election Nick Weston,
Conservative candidate for Leicestershire North, argued that Hague was unpopular
with the electorate: “That was the impression we got on the doorstep… We live in a
media age, and Portillo does seem best set for changing the image of the party.”
(Atkinson, 2001: 17) One candidate extended his criticism further. The average
Conservative candidate lacked a media strategy and so was incapable of marketing
themselves were his inferences:
If you are an old duffer wearing tweed you wouldn’t get a press release
published… they tend to come across as condescending upper-class old gits
who are very boring… All this media stuff is common sense. Unfortunately
most of the Conservative candidates lack common sense but that is a selection
issue. (Interview, 08/10/01)
That particular candidate attempted to “be more modern, more with it, different to
what people expected you to be…. You try to break the mould, individualise
yourself.” (Interview, 08/10/01) Candidates were also critical of the organisation of
the campaign, the dissemination of literature and, as one candidate put it, “the lack of
a structure to it… they said jokingly that I was the legal necessity, we’ll run the
campaign… but I found myself having to take charge of most it…” (Interview,
16/01/02) Equally, “they were absolutely incapable, almost Victorian in what they
did, if I ran a business a tenth as badly as they ran a campaign I would be bankrupt
and sweeping the streets and half of those so-called election agents should be doing
that anyway.” (Interview, 19/01/02)

The problem for the Conservatives is finding a platform that wins them elections
while appeasing the membership of the party. One candidate highlighted the problem
faced by a political realist surrounded by traditional Conservative activists.
You are in a position where you not only think what is the national view but
also what is the local view; if they are not the same it can be a problem. I can’t
make up party policy… I have to take on the line taken by the party nationally
[but] I will take the local view on local issues… The problem is that I know
the party activists would be happier… if I was calling for Britain to withdraw
from the EU… [and] if I took a tough line against gypsies and travellers… but
I know that wouldn’t do me any good as a prospective MP. (Interview,
This highlight the problems faced by a party that wants to brand itself under a single
image with broad appeal while parts of that party have highly diverse views of what
the party stands for.

The Liberal Democrats – an anti-market party?

To describe the Liberal Democrats as an anti-marketing party may be something of an

over-exaggeration. However, due to a combination of tradition, current opinion and

lack of resources, the party has not added a marketing dimension to its campaigning
in any significant sense. That said the party has been transformed itself into a much
tighter electoral machine than it was during the 1970s and 80s, and there are
indications that the Liberal Democrats are in the process of centralising key features
of the campaign as well as homogenising the messages of the candidates. In the light
of this, and drawing from evidence based on studies of Labour and the Conservatives,
we can evaluate whether reforming the campaign will lead to tensions within the party
between the new practices and its core values and, of greater importance, we can
assess if structuring the party from the centre would be counter-productive in electoral

Liberal MPs were often elected as radical individuals with a large personal following,
to use marketing terminology they sold themselves as the product rather than their
role within the party. Personal appeal provided very limited gains and between 1974
and 1983 they were unable to gain more than thirteen seats and in 1979 284 Liberal
candidates lost their deposits. The creation of the Social Democratic Party [SDP] by a
centre-right group of Labour MPs perhaps, with hindsight, marked the resurgence of
the party. The SDP were seen as a media-oriented party and had a clear strategy for
campaigning. (Crewe & King, 1995: 254-71) Though the Liberal-SDP ‘Alliance’
fared badly in 1983 in terms of seats, winning only 23, it was able to attract 25.4% of
the vote. Clearly therefore the media strategy was successful.

While Paddy Ashdown, leader 1988-98, deserves much of the credit for reforming the
party's campaigning methods and political agenda; their most successful tactic, the
ruthless targeting of seats was an idea that was put forward by Rosie Barnes, a
member of David Owen's breakaway 'independent fourth force' SDP. After
humiliating defeats in municipal elections in March 1989, Barnes conceded that if all
their resources were targeted on ten seats at the 1992 General Election the party could
build a basis for greater electoral gains. (Cook, 1998: 205) Barnes’ plan was routed at
the 1990 Bootle by-election, where their candidate was beaten into last place by
Screaming Lord Sutch, of the Monster Raving Loony Party, a party that prides itself
on not having credible policies. Despite this setback, targeting was to be the way
forward for the Liberal Democrats. Countering financial disadvantages, having a
weak support base and lacking a large presence in national politics, the Liberal
Democrats ran highly effective campaigns in 1997 and 2001. They increased their
share of the vote by only 1% over a nine-year period, from 17.8% in 1992 to 18.8% in
2001, but the party was able to increase their number of MPs from 20 to 52. This is
argued to be a consequence of the Liberal Democrats producing: "a good performance
in specific seats where there is a reasonable chance of winning… rather than an
across-the-board improvement that might pay few dividends." (Denver, 2001: 638)
The party has adopted a seat-by-seat approach to electioneering and seeks greater
representation using similar tactics at the next General Election. (Denver, Hands &
Henig, 1998; Russell & Fieldhouse, 2002)

However there remain concerns that the party will face greater scrutiny from the
media as it increases its share of parliamentary seats and so must begin to develop a
more corporate image.
Because we’re a larger party we are taken more seriously by the media, which
in turn has forced us to raise our game… I think that the majority of our MPs,
if they put their hands on their hearts, would acknowledge that they are only in

parliament because they are Liberal Democrats… Of course they’ve made
their own contributions themselves, but there is a much greater sense of
cohesion and more of a sense of loyalty to the party, and adopting common
practices and common policies and using the organisation of the party to do
what they have to do in parliament and outside. I think it’s a much more
cohesive and professional organisation than it was. (Interview, 08/01/02)
This has led to the candidate selection procedure stressing the importance of knowing
party policy and being able to link that with issues specific to the constituency.
People should know what the message is… We don’t want to be a party that
muzzles individuality… but having said that I think there is more of a party
line on a lot of things than there used to be. (Interview, 08/01/02)
However the party candidates who stood at recent elections stress the importance of
individuality arguing that they have as important a role in achieving victory as does
the fact that they represent the Liberal Democrats. Could this lead the party to become
involved in battles to keep their candidates on message or will candidates acquiesce in
the name of electoral victory?

Certainly a sense of individuality, and freedom for independent thought, was stressed
by many of the candidates. They were critical of Labour candidates who reproduced
party messages like a “speak your weight machine” (Interview, 11/10/01) and saw
themselves as able to have a personal view. One candidate reported “I think the most
important thing about standing as a Liberal Democrat candidate was being able to say
what I think on policies.” (Interview, 18/10/01) Liberal Democrat candidates did
reproduce the party message on tactical voting and the need to pay for essential
services through taxation, but largely saw this as advantageous to their campaign. The
general feeling among candidates was:
We weren’t forcing the public to think about this or… that… it was going with
flow. It was not exactly imposed from the top, it was: these are our campaign
themes, it would be a good idea if you majored on those. It was never: you
will! (Interview, 11/10/01)
The importance of the individual was also stressed; one candidate argued “they vote
for a particular person dealing with particular issues.” (Interview, 07/04/01)

What was also clear throughout the interviews with Liberal Democrat candidates was
that they saw grassroots issues as of fundamental importance and often felt more
attuned to how a constituency could be won than the central party – a factor due to the
majority of the candidates having a background as a local councillor within the region
where they are standing - however they also argued that through extensive doorstep
canvassing they became aware of the concerns of the constituents. Collecting these
concerns and turning them into the foundation for a campaign, many Liberal
Democrat candidates and MPs argued, was the route towards electoral success.

This highlights a tension between the local, or micro level, politics and the macro
campaign. Candidates from both the Conservative and Labour parties found their
Liberal Democrat opponents infuriating. One Labour candidate argued: “they try to be
all things to all men to win votes, you can’t run a party like that.” (Interview,
17/12/01) A Conservative was more critical reporting that:
they say anything on the doorstep to win someone’s vote. Their policy is not
only different for different parts of the country but for different parts of a
constituency and even from one house to the next. (Interview, 16/01/02)

Criticisms such as these are of concern to the party leadership who wish to see the
campaign become more homogenous. They claim some successes, observing that: “A
lot of Liberal Democrat literature will look the same… though with local factors
added in… and there is a certain look to a Liberal Democrat campaign.” (Interview,
08/01/02) However foresee problems should the media start to scrutinise the party:
“we are more vulnerable to the… criticism that we say different things in different
parts of the country, I’d much rather that we kept repeating the same message.”
(Interview, 08/01/02)

The press have largely been very sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats. Studies of the
coverage of the 2001 General Election found that the party received a reasonably high
level of media attention and, more importantly that this was almost universally
positive. The overt use of spin by Labour and the failed populism of the
Conservatives both allowed the Liberal Democrats to bask in their position as an
honest party with a lot of energy. (Wring, 2001) At the end of the 2001 campaign
Kennedy lagged behind Blair by only 0.5% in the British Election Study
commissioned poll on the ratings of the party leaders. While the Daily Telegraph and
BBC’s Newsnight criticised the party’s policy to shift the television watershed to
11pm rather than the present 9pm, core Liberal Democrat policies were often used as
a benchmark against which other parties could be criticised. This was particularly the
case in relation to the party’s honesty in talking about raising income tax, rather than
using stealth taxation to fund public services. (Denver, 2001: 645)

The interviews with Liberal Democrat candidates and those working on the party
campaign strategies indicate that they are a party at the crossroads. They could pursue
the marketing model and centralise the electioneering process or they could provide
the tools to their candidates for running an autonomous campaign. It was the latter
that was described by one Liberal Democrat MP as the favoured choice of the
candidates. (Interview, 08/01/02) But this may not necessarily be what the central
office see as necessary to make an impact in terms of improving their share of
parliamentary seats. Moves towards centralisation, however, may undermine the
party’s current popularity. Denver’s observation that their focus on popular issues
such as public services, coupled with making “a virtue of giving straight answers, of
being honest… and of shunning ‘negative’ campaigning” (Denver, 2001: 646) is
reminiscent of Kavanagh’s description of the party in 1995. Where the differences lie
is that Kavanagh identified that many Liberal MPs were “independent local
personalities in their own right… [which] limits their incentives to respond positively
to campaign instructions from the national leadership.” (Kavanagh, 1995: 153) This
has changed, but it is difficult to measure the extent of that shift. Some Liberal
Democrat MPs still evoke the image of individuality and the Scottish MPs are
particularly buoyed by the fact that they can offer different policies because they have
influence within the Scottish parliament. The questions remain can they evade
divisive media attention and continue to gain victories offering localised, popular
election campaigning or must they organise and centralise the campaign process. And,
if they do, will this result in the tensions between the macro and micro level becoming
a bigger story than their potential to win a number of constituencies.

Conclusion – the future of marketing in British politics

In the USA, where the Presidential elections focus upon the credibility of one
individual, marketing has proved highly successful. (Jamieson, 1996; McGinniss,
1998; Newman, 1994) In the British context, however, the complex nature of the
political parties means that there are structural and ideational obstacles when
attempting to establish the market-oriented model of campaigning. As David Denver
rightly points out:
It is not the case that there are 'generals' at party headquarters who issue
instructions to the troops' in the field. Quite apart from the constitutional
independence of Conservative constituency associations, the fact that each
party has over 630 local campaigns to oversee means that, on the whole, local
parties have to be left to run their own campaigns… (Denver & Hands, 1997:
There are practices for "coaxing, prodding, cajoling and bribing" the constituencies to
"follow advice from the centre." And their use has increased, particularly in the case
of the Labour party. The fact that other parties are beginning to recognise the benefits
of disciplined campaigning hints that such techniques could become a standard
feature of election campaigning in Britain. However it is debatable whether the effects
of this will all be positive.

The research on the three parties suggest that each one is at a different stage of
implementing some form of market orientation. In terms of electoral success it would
seem that Labour's conversion to a market-led political programme would seem a
model worthy of emulation. However, we should enquire whether Labour could have
lost in either 1997 or 2001. Certainly the Liberal Democrats were not a significant
threat on a national level, and made most of their gains from the Conservatives. The
Hague-led Conservatives 1997-2001 could offer no more potent an opposition than
the party led by John Major: the majority of British national newspapers saw them as
divided and out of touch. (Wring, 2002) We should therefore ask is Labour’s strict
control necessary and, moreover, is it more damaging to the party than allowing
members to vote 'according to their conscience'.

Clearly both the media and a proportion of Labour party members are hostile to the
use of spin and the control freakery that have become synonymous with the Blairite
model of leadership. If the Conservatives can mount a serious challenge, and Labour
begin to lose its lead in the ratings, the party's control mechanisms could begin to
unravel. However, if the Conservatives adopt a more centralised model and enforce
party messages this could cause dissent that will render the party ineffectual. These
questions, together with the recognition that marketing is perhaps antithetical to the
Liberal Democrat ethos, raise doubts as to how far marketing can be applied to
political parties. We should also consider the effect upon the electorate. Douglas
Alexander, Labour’s General Election Campaign Co-ordinator in 2001, argued that
“reports about ‘control’ and ‘spin’… contributed to a sense that the actions of both
political reporters and political candidates were somehow very remote from their day-
to-day concerns.” (Alexander, 2001: 73)

Dissent and disunity has long been a feature of British politics, a tradition many wish
to uphold, can it be expunged in the name of electoral success and will the electorate
accept monolithic entities, expounding identical arguments as the only form of
representation available? The low turnout and overall antipathy to the current political
climate was evident throughout the protracted 2001 campaign, the overt use of

marketing techniques is argued to be one cause of this and its application needs to be
questioned before we accept that a market-orientation is the way forward. Clearly
marketing techniques have some application for political parties, advertising, product
identification, image manipulation have all been tools utilised by Prime Ministers and
party leaders. However can a party present a manifesto that is informed only by public
opinion; in other words is adopting a market-oriented model a step too far? Equally
can the use of ‘spin’ convince the electorate that pledges are being followed despite
contrary evidence. More importantly can cohesion be enforced, using a combination
of the promise of elevation within the ranks, electoral success and bullying tactics,
upon individuals who often enter politics on the grounds of their own personal
convictions? The answers provided in this paper are by no means finite but tend
towards offering a negative conclusion.

While we can argue that Labour did, and perhaps the Conservatives do, need to
rebrand themselves: redefine their product and regain a sense of political realities,
political parties within the British electoral system must also act as a composite of
their members and retain a sense of their history and traditions. It is here where the
market-oriented model faces its greatest obstacles. All three party's traditions of
internal democracy and local autonomy conflict with the centralised, disciplined,
corporate model of party organisation. Therefore students of political marketing need
to re-investigate whether the limitations on implementing a market orientation
indicate that the use of techniques currently associated more with MacDonalds are not
practical for the organisations who dwell in and around the palace of Westminster.


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This is evidenced by a number of interviews carried out with PPCs from all parties but is a
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A service that had been taken away during a rationalisation of the Health Service in 1998 and which
had been an issue of serious contention throughout Locke’s period as MP.
Criticism was expressed by the majority of those interviewed, however as this was a small sample it is
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Statement to the press, 10 December 2001 posted on to the official Liberal Democrat website
Interviewed for BBC TV, On The Record, 27 January 2002.