Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Beirut/NTSC scores interview with Lance Price (Former communications director at the Labour party)

In an interview with Lance Price, former communications director of the labour party in Britain, Tarek Chemaly inquires about what makes a good political campaign, about the image legacy of Tony Blair, and if advertisers are allowed to be “hired guns” or not politically.

As the communications director who accompanied the new labour, what do you think the legacy of the past decade will be for England and the world at large?

Many people consider it was ‘Iraq’, for others it was ‘Spin’. And for those who couldn’t choose between the two it was ‘the spinning of Iraq’. But to be fair, Mr. Blair is the first Prime Minister in my lifetime to leave office without his record being tarnished by any of the following: economic crisis, civil or industrial unrest, mass unemployment, devaluation or public spending cuts. That’s not spin, it’s a fact. Nobody would claim that the government has achieved everything it set out to do, or that everything it has done has been a success. There have been huge disappointments and some terrible errors along the way. But peace in Northern Ireland? Hospital waiting times slashed? Record investment in schools? A minimum wage? Devolution that works? Near full employment? Civil partnerships? Economic growth every quarter? Millions lifted out of poverty? It’s a legacy to be proud of in my opinion.

Do you think the Iraq war quagmire will undermine the image of Tony Blair forever? And do you think Gordon Brown will be able to carry on in the same vein of policies?

Not forever but for a long time. Iraq is of course part of his legacy and for many people it was the one thing that changed their minds about him. We should remember, however, that when the UK helped the Americans invade the policy had the support of most British people, and even after the war went so badly wrong Blair won another general election. Given time people will also remember many positive things about what the Blair government achieved, especially in domestic matters. Brown cannot follow the same line. He has to show he is different if he is to win the next election. Already he is signaling in a very clever way that he will not be “joined at the hip” with George W. Bush. But it is a difficult balancing act and we do not know yet whether he will succeed.

Are there any specific rules and regulations for a political campaign to be effective?... Even though you are on the labour side, you actually do concede that Saatchi & Saatchi's classic "Labour isn't working" campaign was a hit. What makes it so?

A good political advertising campaign should be simple and witty, but it must also strike a chord with people and reflect what they are already inclined to think. So ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ was a great ad campaign. It said several things at once – unemployment, government incompetence etc. It was a great negative ad, although it said nothing about the alternative. The Conservatives had another good ad when John Major was fighting Neil Kinnock (Labour) in 1992. Two boxing gloves and the caption “Double Whammy” – suggesting people would be hit twice with higher taxes and higher prices. But then when Blair came along the Tories lost their touch. They had posters showing Blair with devils’ eyes (‘Demon Eyes’ campaign) but nobody believed he was a devil so it didn’t work. They had a slogan ‘New Labour, New Danger’ which seemed clever too but because nobody thought New Labour was dangerous it failed too. Labour had some very good campaigns also, some positive ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ (1997) and some negative such as when they put up a poster of the Tory leader William Hague in Mrs. Thatcher’s wig (2001) – again it mixed humour with a message people believed, that Hague was just more of what they hated about Thatcher.

Do you think you can do a political campaign for a rival? Do you believe that a political campaign has to stem from a personal conviction - or are we as advertising people, simply "hired guns"?

If you are good at your job you can do a political campaign for anyone. In fact it is a good exercise to try to imagine what your political opponents would run as a campaign against you. If you try to think of the best idea they could use to attack you it helps you to understand your own weaknesses.

Apart from contributing to travel guides, you wrote a political memoir "The Spin Doctor's Diary" and a novel "Time and Fate". Both were set on 10 Downing Street, both filled with ruthless politicians and dirty tricks and so on... How far is fiction from reality in your writing, and why did you say that writing a novel was more difficult?

Good political fiction has to be realistic although you can make the characters even larger than life. There were things in my novel that could never happen in real life, but that is OK in satire. Also there are many events in real life politics that make you say “if this was in a novel nobody would believe it”. Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes.

Well, reports indicate that recently the World's view of the United States has declined massively, what could be some measures taken by the US to restore their image? In the Middle East specifically, the US-Israeli ties are the source of the media blunder it seems, how can the US actually still defend its strategic position all while selling its ideologies?

That is a question for the Americans and not me fortunately.

Going back to the new labour campaign, M People's "Moving on up" was associated with the campaign, who made such a strategic choice to link the image of the party to a specific pop song?

We are always looking for catchy pop tunes to use in political campaigns. Moving on Up was OK because it was uplifting and optimistic, but I bet most people didn’t really understand any great political message from it. I think it was probably Peter Mandleson’s idea. Much better was D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ which was the campaign tune for Labour in 1997. The message was perfect and it was positive and optimistic without promising too much – just like the campaign.

Lance Price is a freelance writer, broadcaster and commentator. He appears regularly on television and radio, principally in the UK but also worldwide. His columns appear in The Guardian and elsewhere. He has over fifteen years' experience as a BBC Correspondent and spent three years working in political communications at 10 Downing Street and for the Labour Party. He is the author of two books, The Spin Doctor's Diary, an account of his time working at No.10 Downing Street, and Time and Fate, a novel. He has written for television documentaries and worked on plays for both radio and TV.
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