The Battle for the Campaign Agenda in Britain

Last Updated: 27 Jul 2020
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The 1997 election was a struggle, not just for votes, but also to control the campaign agenda. Significant, but contradictory, challenges faced the media, parties and the public. For journalists, the problem was how to engender any zip into the campaign. Ever since Black Wednesday, in September 1992, Labour had seemed assured of victory while Conservative support floundered in the doldrums. For five years, perhaps it just seemed like longer, pundits had been writing of the end of the Conservative era, bolstered by all the accumulated evidence from opinion polls, by-elections and local elections.

By the start of the six-week official campaign, the horse-race story was almost lifeless. Moreover, to the dismay of leader-writers, commentators and columnists, Blair's strategic shift towards the centre-left had removed much of the drama of serious policy conflicts between the major parties. Few issues remained where one could discern clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives - devolution and constitutional reform, perhaps the faint ghost of trade union rights and spending priorities - but on so much the contest was a classic case of an echo not a choice.

Lastly, at the outset the campaign promised tight party control, in as gaffe-free an environment as could be humanly managed. At the start the Labour party seemed insecure and sweaty despite its enormous lead in the polls, and the professional andelson machine at Millbank Tower left almost nothing to chance, as though the souffle of support might suddenly collapse. Based on their formidable track-record during the 1980s, the Conservatives had a reputation for running highly professional campaigns.

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Given the palpable sense of public boredom and impatience, a feeling of oh-do-lets-get-on-with-it, the challenge for journalists was to find something fresh and interesting to hold the attention of their readers and viewers. During the six week campaign there was, on average, about ten hours of regular BBC and ITN television news and current affairs programmes every weekday1, not including election specials, nor Sky News, CNN, Radio 4, Five Live, newspapers and magazines, the internet election web pages, and all the other plethora of media outlets.

Something had to fill the ravenous news hole. For the public, the primary urge seemed to be to get it all over with. But voters also needed to make sense of the choice before them, when policy differences between the parties had shaded from the red-and-blue days of Thatcher v. Foot to a middle of the road wishy-washy mauve. Many issues confronting voters were complex, technical and subtle, with no easy answers: what will happen to the economy if Britain enters, or stays out, of the ERM? How can the peace process move ahead in Northern Ireland, given the intractability of all sides?

Can Britain afford an effective and comprehensive health service, given ever-increasing demands on the system and spending limits accepted by all parties? These, and related, issues facing Britain have critical consequences for the lives of citizens, but they admit of no simple sound-bite panaceas. The needs of the news media and the public were at odds with those of the parties. Given their lead, the primary challenge for Labour was to manage their media environment against unexpected crises, in play-safe reactive mode.

The watchword was control. Memories of the polling fiasco in 1992, and Neil Kinnock's false expectation of victory in that campaign ("We're allright! "), dominated strategy in 1997. The challenge for the Conservatives was to staunch grassroots morale, and even build momentum, by emphasising the positive economic performance of the government, by reassuring voters to trust Prime Minister John Major against the inexperienced and unknown Tony Blair, and by attacking Labour on the old bugaboos of taxes and trade unions.

To gain traction the Conservatives had to take more risks than Labour. The challenge facing all the minor parties, but particularly the Liberal Democrats, was to avoid being squeezed by Labour's smothering slither centre-left. Who won? The aim of this chapter is to examine this battle and evaluate the outcome. The first section sets out the long-term context by considering how campaigning has been transformed in the post-war era.

The 1997 election represented another critical step, it can be argued, in the transition to the post-modern campaign in Britain, -- characterised by partisan dealignment in the press, growing fragmentation in the electronic media, and strategic communications in parties. The second section goes on to analyse what was covered in the national press and television during the campaign, and whether this suggests Labour won the battle of the campaign agenda, as well as the election.

Lastly, we consider how the public reacted to the coverage, whether they felt that journalists generated interesting, fair and informative coverage, and the implications of this analysis for the struggle over campaign communications. The Evolution of the Post-Modern Campaign Modernisation theory suggests that during the post-war era the political communication process has been transformed by the decline of direct linkages between citizens and parties, and the rise of mediated relationships.

Swanson and Mancini argue that similar, although not identical, developments are recognisable across industrialised democracies2. In the earliest stage, the premodern campaign in Britain was characterised by the predominance of the partisan press; a loose organizational network of grassroots party volunteers in local constituencies; and a short, ad-hoc national campaign run by the party leader with a few close advisers. This period of campaigning gradually evolved in the mid-nineteenth century following the development of mass party organizations registering and mobilising the newly enfranchised electorate.

Despite the introduction of wireless broadcasting in 1922, this pattern was maintained in largely identifiable form until the late fifties3. The critical watershed came in 1959, with the first television coverage of a British general election, symbolising the transition to the next stage. The evolution of the modern campaign was marked by a shift in the central location of election communications, from newspapers towards television, from the constituency grassroots to the party leadership, and from amateurs towards professionals.

The press entered an era of long-term decline: circulation of national newspapers peaked in the late fifties and sales have subsequently dropped by one-third (see Figure 1). The fall was sharpest among tabloids, pushing these further downmarket in the search for readers4. This fierce competition transformed the nature of the British press, producing growing sensationalism, and more journalism with attitude, while changes in ownership ratcheted the partisan balance further in the Conservative direction.

One major factor contributing towards declining circulation was the rise of television. The political effects of this new technology were strongly mediated by the regulations governing broadcasting in each country. In Britain the legal framework for the BBC/ITV duopoly was suffused by a strong public service ethos which required broadcasters to maintain 'party balance' and impartiality in news coverage, to 'inform, educate and entertain' according to high standards, and to provide an agreed allocation of unpaid airtime to arty political broadcasts5.

Within this familiar context, television centralised the campaign, and thereby increased the influence of the party leaders: what appeared on BBC1's flagship 9 O'clock News and ITN's News at Ten, and related news and current affairs studios, was the principle means by which politicians reached the vast majority of voters. To work effectively within this environment parties developed a coordinated national campaign with professional communications by specialists skilled in advertising, marketing, and polling.

The 'long campaign' in the year or so before polling day became as important strategically as the short 'official' campaign. These changes did not occur overnight, nor did they displace grassroots constituency activity, as the timeless ritual of canvassing and leafletting continued. A few trusted experts in polling and political marketing became influential during the campaign in each party, such as Maurice Saatchi, Tim Bell and Gordon Reece in Conservative Central Office, but this role remained as part-time outside advisors, not integral to the process of government, nor even to campaigning which was still run by politicians.

Unlike in the United States, no political marketing industry developed, in large part because the only major clients were the Labour and Conservative party leaderships: the minor parties had limited resources, while parliamentary candidates ran retail campaigns based on shoe-leather and grassroots helpers.

But the net effect of television during the era of modernisation was to shift the primary focus of the campaign from the ad-hoccery of unpaid volunteers and local candidates towards the central party leadership flanked by paid, although not necessarily full-time, professionals6. Lastly in the late twentieth century Britain seems to have been experiencing the rise of the post-modern campaign, although there remains room for dispute in the interpretation of the central features of this development and its consequences.

The most identifiable characteristics, evident in the 1997 campaign, include the emergence of a more autonomous, and less partisan, press following its own 'media logic'; the growing fragmentation and diversification of electronic media outlets, programmes and audiences; and, in reaction to these developments, the attempt by parties to reassert control through strategic communications and media management during the permanent campaign. Partisan Dealignment in the Press In the post-war period parties have had long-standing and stable links with the press.

In 1945 there was a rough partisan balance with about 6. 7 million readers of pro-Conservative papers and 4. 4 million readers of pro-Labour papers. This balance shifted decisively in the early 1970s, with the transformation of the left-leaning Daily Herald into the pro-Conservative Sun, and the more aggressively right-wing tone of The Times, both under Rupert Murdoch's ownership. By 1992 the cards had become overwhelmingly stacked against the left, since the circulation of the Conservative-leaning press had risen to about 8. 7 million compared with only 3. million for Labour-leaning papers (see Figure 1).

Throughout the 1980s Mrs Thatcher could campaign assured of a largely sympathetic press, which provided a loyal platform to get her message across7. One of the most striking developments of recent years has been the crumbling of these traditional press-party loyalties. The evidence comes partly from editorial policy. The Conservative press had started to turn against Mrs Thatcher in 1989-90, when the economy was in recession and her leadership became deeply unpopular, and this constant barrage of criticism probably contributed towards her eventual demise8.

During the 1992 election, while the Sun and the Daily Express continued to beat the Tory drum, comment from some of the other pro-Conservative press like the Mail and The Sunday Times was more muted, and four out of eleven daily papers failed to endorse a single party9. The new government enjoyed a brief respite on returning to office but press criticism of John Major's leadership deepened following the ERM debacle on 16th September 1992, with only the Daily Express staying loyal.

Journalists continued to highlight the government's difficulties over Europe, and internal splits over the debate on the Maastricht Treaty. By the winter of 1993, a succession of scandals involving Conservative politicians created headline news while editorials regularly denunciated the government, and particularly the Prime Minister. By the time of the July 1995 leadership challenge only the Daily Express backed John Major solidly, while the Sun, the Mail, The Times and the Telegraph all argued that it was time for him to be replaced10, an embarrassment for their leader writers given the outcome.

The question, in the long run-up to the election, was whether the Tory press would return home, once the future of the Conservative government was under real threat. In the event, the 1997 election represents a historic watershed. In a major break with tradition, six out of ten national dailies, and five out of nine Sundays, endorsed the Labour party in their final editorials (see Table 1). This was twice the highest number previously, and it reversed the long-standing pro-Conservative leanings in the national press.

With impeccable timing, the Sun led the way on the first day of the campaign, (THE SUN BACKS BLAIR), with a frontpage claiming Blair is a "breath of fresh air" while the Conservatives were "tired, divided and rudderless", and its defection stole the headlines and damaged Tory morale. This change of heart came after assiduous efforts by Labour to court press support, including meetings between Blair and Rupert Murdoch, especially Blair's visit to Australia in 1995. roughout the campaign the Sun, with ten million readers a day, provided largely unswerving support for Blair, although opposing Labour policy on Europe and the unions, and many commentators predicted that the switch, based on Murdoch's commercial considerations rather than political affinities, would not last long11. Labour's traditional tabloid, the Daily Mirror, with six million readers, continued its brand of centre-left journalism ("the paper for Labour's TRUE supporters"). On the last Sunday of the campaign, influenced by Murdoch, The News of the World decided to follow the lead of its sister paper, the Sun, and backed Labour.

Among the broadsheets The Guardian called for tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats in seats where it made sense, but broadly endorsed Labour. The Independent was more restrained in its backing, casting its editorial vote for Labour "with a degree of optimism that is not entirely justified by the evidence". The paper was clearly more anti-Tory than pro-anything. The Times advised their readers to back Eurosceptic candidates from whatever party, although, in practice, nearly all were Conservatives.

Only leads in the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail ("Labour bully boys are back" "Labour's broken promises") remained strongly in the Tory camp. Even the Daily Express was more neutral than in the past: a double-page spread was divided between Lord Hollick, its chief executive, arguing for Labour and its chairman, Lord Stevens, arguing for the Conservatives. The front-page of the election-eve Mail carried a colourful Union Jack border and the apocalyptic warning that a Labour victory could "undo 1,000 years of our nation's history".

Yet any comparison of editorial policy probably under-estimates the balance of partisanship in news coverage during the overall campaign. For example, the Mail ostensibly endorsed the Conservatives during the campaign, but in practice it probably deeply damaged the government by headlining sexual scandals in the party, and reinforcing images of disunity with leading articles highlighting the number of Tory Eurosceptics. With friends like this, the Conservatives did not need opponents. To understand this we need to go beyond the leaders, which are rarely read, and even less heeded, to examine the broader pattern of front-page stories.

The most plausible evidence for dealignment is that certain papers like the Sun, traditionally pro-Conservative, switched camps, but also that front-page stories were often so similar across all the press, driven by news values irrespective of the paper's ostensible partisanship. Since the early 1970s fierce competition for readers has encouraged far more sensational coverage in the popular press, fuelling an endless diet of stories about 'scandals', (mostly sexual but also financial), infotainment, and the Royals, preferably all three. This process started when Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World in 1968, and the Sun a year later.

It accelerated in the cut-throat competition produced by the launch of the Daily Star in 1978, which sought to out-do the Sun in its relentless search for sex, investigative 'exclusives' about celebrities, violent crime, and graphic coverage of the bizzare. Those who thought British newspapers had reached their nadir at this point had under-estimated the soft-porn Sunday Sport, launched in 198612. The tackiness of the popular press, such as their exhaustive gossip about the goings-on of the younger Royals, gradually infected and corroded the news culture of the broadsheets as well.

By the mid-1990s, the journalism of scandal trumped party loyalties, hands down. This fuelled the series of sleaze stories about senior Conservative politicians hroughout John Major's years in government, and there was no let-up during the campaign. As documented in detail later, the first two weeks of the election were dominated by a succession of stories about corruption in public life and sexual 'scandals', providing a steady diet of negative news for the government which swamped their message about the economy.

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The Battle for the Campaign Agenda in Britain. (2018, Jun 22). Retrieved from

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