By Dominic Wring, Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99
Having been rightly chided so often in the past by Dominic Wring for allowing myself to become mesmerised by the supposed novelty of New Labour’s manipulation of the media, I can say without hesitation that he has set the record straight. One of his aims in The Politics of Marketing the Labour Party was to place Blairites like Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell in their true historical context and Wring has unquestionably achieved that objective while delivering at the same time a fascinating insight into earlier attempts to promote the party.
I was always conscious of the fact that my own books lacked a proper sense of perspective. My starting point was the rapid expansion of news outlets which was well underway by the early 1980s and which provided seemingly unlimited opportunities for a new generation of aggressive and ruthless media manipulators hired by both Conservatives and Labour.
While always acknowledging the possible value of yet another of my breathless tomes chronicling the latest antics of various spin doctors, Wring would calmly suggest that I should try reading copies of Labour Organiser from the 1930s because I would soon discover there was nothing new in concepts like the permanent campaign, perpetual electioneering or for that matter in soundbites, spin doctors or gory infighting over the appointment of advertising agents.
Wring has pulled together in a concise and readable way the various twists and turns within the party as control passed back and forth between those who sought to ‘sell’ socialism by exploiting advertising and the news media and others who saw themselves as educationalists and were scornful of slick presentational techniques.
What I found fascinating was the contrast between the ‘archetype persuasionalist’ Harold Wilson and Michael Foot who ‘believed in the power of ideas not soundbites’. Wring concludes that Wilson’s role in ‘developing Labour’s media campaigning was his organisational legacy’. His successor Jim Callaghan was less ‘media conscious’ and, after the party’s 1979 defeat, there was ‘hostility towards marketing professionalism’ within the leadership.
By charting the way presentation of the party has evolved over the years and by reminding readers of Wilson’s popularisation of images now more associated with Blair such as ‘New Britain’, Wring judiciously debunks Philip Gould’s characterisation of Labour’s approach to communication prior to the mid-1980s as having ‘abhorred photo opportunities…and harangued the party faithful at rallies’.
Alastair Campbell’s ‘robust news management techniques’ are carefully dissected and I agree with Wring that it was the resulting ‘culture of mistrust’ which contributed to Campbell’s eventual departure from Blair’s government in 2003.
The opening sentence of the book’s conclusion asserts that a ‘defining characteristic of the so-called “new” Labour project is its ignorance of history’. The preceding chapter highlights Peter Mandelson’s claim that the Blairites formed ‘the finest, most professional campaigning machine that Labour has ever created’. Well done Dominic! Your book is a well-researched antidote to New Labour spin.
(Review first appeared, Free Press, July 2005)