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Soundbites versus Socialism

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Published as Wring, D.(1997) 'Soundbites versus Socialism: the Changing Campaign Philosophy of the British

Labour Party', Javnost/The Public, 4:3, pp.59-68. ISSN 1318 3222

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    SOUNDBITES VERSUS SOCIALISM:

    THE CHANGING CAMPAIGN PHILOSOPHY OF THE BRITISH LABOUR PARTY

DOMINIC WRING

Dominic Wring is Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies and a member of the

    Communication Research Centre, Loughborough University.

The paper will seek to analyse the internal debate that has raged throughout the party’s history as

    to what constitutes the most appropriate form of political communication. Two contrasting views are identified: these are “educationalism,” that is the belief that the best way to win public support is through a determined and sustained political education programme relying on meetings, leaflets, labour intensive grassroots' work and informed debate; by contrast what is labelled “persuasionalism” sees the media and mass communication as central to campaigning and places emphasis on the less tangential, image based appeals to what are perceived to be the largely disinterested electorate. The discussion will assess the centrality of the educationalist perspective to Labour Party strategy in the early part of its existence, that is the first half of this century. What will then be demonstrated is how what has broadly been defined as

    persuasionalism first challenged and then supplanted educationalism as the dominant party approach to electioneering. Discussion will note that Labour, probably like most social democratic parties, has contained elements hostile to the mass media as an agency of political communication. As the paper will show this is not something unique to contemporary debate, and has in fact been a key theme of strategic discussion throughout the party's history.

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     Introduction

     Talk of the 1997 general election has once again focused British commentators’ minds on

    the political role of the mass media and “image-making.” This is reflected in the recent

    controversy surrounding the strategies being employed by the Labour Party to publicly promote

    its policies and leader Tony Blair. Opponents, notably Conservative Chairman Brian Mawhinney

    in his 1996 Party Conference speech, have sought to portray Blair as a politician dependent on

    marketing research rather than principles. This argument has derived inspiration from earlier

    comments made by Clare Short, one of Blair’s Shadow Cabinet colleagues. The senior

    frontbench MP, in making her feelings public, was careful not to criticise the leader himself but

    did make telling references to the marketing conscious aides around him. Her anxieties were

    summed up in the phraseology used to describe what she termed “the people in the dark”

    (Richards 1996). In developing her argument, Short questioned the wisdom of Labour’s and

    these particular advisers’ over-reliance on polling research. Far from being just a point of contention in the Labour Party of the late 1980s and 1990s, this paper will assess how similar

    sentiments have long informed strategic debate since the organisation was created at the

    beginning of the century.

     Competing Philosophies of Political Communication

     Traditionally a significant body of opinion within the Labour movement has objected to

    changes in electioneering which have appeared to involve the dilution of their party's

    commitment to converting people to its cause. According to Bernard Barker this is evidence of an

    approach to political communication governed by the philosophy of “educational socialism”

    (Barker 1972). Labelled “democratic rationalists” by another historian Timothy Hollins, adherents to this view found sympathy and support in a party which prided itself on a belief in

    utopian ideals designed to emancipate the poor and dispossessed (Hollins 1981, 119). Hollins

    uses the term in order to clarify the reluctance of many early Labour campaigners to engage in

    appeals built around anything but straightforward political education.

    i This educationalist

    conception of campaigning built on the pioneering work of J.S.Mill. Influenced by Aristotle, Mill

    was of the opinion that democracy would only properly function if it was based on solid reasoned

    debate amongst an informed citizenry rather than the populist appeals characteristic of mob rule

    (McLean 1976, 29; Price 1992, 5).

     Education was seen as both the opposite of, not to mention an antidote to, the shallow and

    emotive appeals of opportunist propaganda. To quote Robert Blatchford, founder of the Clarion

    journal, his and his fellow activists’ mission was to “Make Socialists” (Barker 1972). Coming as

    many organisers originally did from a background in the evangelistic Independent Labour Party

    or Nonconformist church movement, it was hardly surprising that some party servants saw their

    task in terms of “converting” the apolitical (McLean 1980). Despite their sometimes emotive

    tones, Labour organisers saw the use of rational, fact filled discourse as a way of countering

    opponents' apparent reliance on fear and fiction (Hollins 1981, 126-130). This concern reflected

    the view of many in the party weary about the increasingly pervasive role of “image politics.”

    Several organisers worried that their mission to educate and ultimately emancipate society would

    be hampered under a weight of propagandist distortion and subterfuge (White 1939).

     In contrast to “educational socialism” was what Hollins terms the “persuasional”

    approach to political communication. Typically this was couched in language and symbolism

    primarily designed to provoke emotions rather than a reasoned response on the part of the

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recipient (Hollins 1981, 122). As Qualter notes such a perception clearly derives inspiration from

    the teachings of Plato (Qualter 1985, 11). Countering the Aristotelian belief in the potential for a

    democracy consisting of an informed populace, Plato feared this an imperfect state of affairs too

    prone to falling prey to the tyranny of an emotionally charged mob (Price 1992, 5).

     An increasingly integral part of political discourse during the late 19th and early 20th

    centuries, persuasional propaganda began to gather support from advocates inside the Labour

    Party. This body of opinion gained influential endorsement from leading Fabian and early

    political scientist Graham Wallas who, in his seminal 1908 book Human Nature in Politics,

    argued that new forms of communication were helping to undermine the long held “intellectualist

    assumption” of many democratic theorists (Wallas 1948, 87). Wallas believed the advent of

    manipulative mass propaganda offered a serious challenge to the notion that giving every person

    the vote would lead to informed, deliberative and stimulating public debate. Practical politicians,

    he argued, would inevitably develop the use of the “image” based appeals in their attempts to win

    over the electorate: “It is the business of the party managers to secure that these automatic associations be as clear as possible, shall be shared by as large a number as possible, and shall

    call up as many and as strong emotions as possible” (Wallas 1948, 84).

     Wallas' sentiments found favour with several Labour veterans of the campaign trail.

    Faced with what he saw as a sad reality, agent Wilfred Hargreaves urged an abandonment of the

    party’s adherence to didactic methods: “I infinitely prefer a convinced and thoughtful voter, but

    we must face the fact that many voters do not think very much, and many years will elapse before

    they cease to allow others to do their thinking for them” (Labour Organiser 1926, *******).

    Others agreed and propounded the view that a substantial and critical mass of the public were

    fluid in outlook and probably disinterested in politics, particularly of the evangelical, intensely

    educative kind (Labour Organiser 1923). The acceptance of such arguments were a factor in the

    party’s shift towards using more persuasional methods of political communication during the inter-war period. According to Hollins this was evidence of the party becoming “as much

    electorally as educationally orientated” (Hollins 1981, 133). After the Second World War, and

    the arrival of mass television, modern polling and saturation advertising, the debate between

    strategists intensified with those holding educationalist and persuasionalist views coming into

    more open conflict.

     The Rise of the Mass Media and the Prototype “Modernisers”

     During the 1950s Labour appointed David Ginsberg, formerly with Government Social

    Surveys, head of Research. Together with the leader’s decision to take soundings from leading

    market researcher Mark Abrams, the choice of Ginsberg increased the likelihood that the party

    might invest time and resources in a programme of polling. At the 1957 NEC Publicity Sub-

    committee which met to discuss the matter left-winger Aneurin Bevan and his educationalist

    leaning allies took issue with Abrams’ methods. The debate was heated with one participant

    likening polling research to the work of notorious Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels (Butler and

    King 1965, 67). Another adviser present, Professor R.H.Tawney, calmed the meeting before

    launching a defence of polling methods. The efforts of Tawney were, however, to no avail and

    further research was not commissioned until after the 1959 election though Abrams continued to

    be a discreet confidante of the leader. Then, having had his proposal to mount a survey post-

    mortem into Labour’s subsequent defeat frustrated by elements within the central apparatus, Abrams formally linked up with the journal Socialist Commentary to conduct election analysis (Worcester 1991, 24).

     First published as a series of articles in the Socialist Commentary during the early part of

    1960, Abrams’ study gained greater notoriety when it appeared in book form later that year

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(Abrams et al. 1960). The volume, entitled Must Labour Lose?, proved to be an important and

    influential source for political debate and made a notable impression on General Secretary

    Morgan Philips, Research Department head Peter Shore (Butler and King 1965, 67) and the

    Gaitskellite right-wing of the party who saw it as apparent scientific justification for their

    revisionist case (Windlesham 1966, 86-88). In essence the research identified the basis of a move

    towards the “embourgeoisement” of British society whereby growing numbers of working-class

    people began to aspire to and in some cases realise the comfortable lifestyle more commonly

    associated with the middle-class: such voters were thought unlikely to be impressed with a

    proletarian type party committed to a large-scale programme of nationalisation. It was an

    argument which gathered support in the party. Future Home Secretary Merlyn Rees, a Labour

    candidate in the 1959 election, addressed himself to the potentially ominous electoral

    consequences for Labour of an increasingly “atomised society” unfavourable to the collectivist

    ethos as embodied in organisations like the trades unions (Rees 1960).

     Must Labour Lose? also modified the thinking of prominent figures such as Tony

    Crosland. Crosland was sympathetic to the idea that Labour needed to revamp its image in order,

    as he saw it, to place itself “in rapport” with the public. In his 1960 pamphlet “Can Labour

    Win?” he argued that the party ought to commission a programme of polls in preparation for the

    next election (Crosland 1962). At least one motion to the Annual Conference of that year called

    for the integration of market research into electoral strategy (Teer and Spence 1973, 169). Not

    long after the NEC appointed Mark Abrams as the party's official pollster. The advent of a

    coherent strategy for the supervision of opinion polling would not be the only organisational coup

    initiated by revisionist forces in the party.

     The introduction of mass television created considerable interest, not least in the Labour

    Party. As former BBC producer and Tony Benn saw it: “We must make it (television) serve us as

    surely as the pioneers made the leaflet and the soap box carry the message to the people of

    Britain” (Labour Organiser 1955, ********). Prior to the 1955 campaign Benn had pushed for

    the party to take a more professional approach towards televised PEB production. Although his

    plans were not implemented, the new medium continued to hold his interest as he admitted in a

    1958 article for political journal Forward:

    Just as one hydrogen bomb packs more power than the total load dropped in

    World War Two, so one television broadcast more than equals a lifetime of mass

    rallies and street-corner oratory. Old methods of campaigning are as obsolete as

    conventional weapons (cited in Adams 1992, 142).

     Benn eventually got the chance to put his ideas into practice with the onset of the 1959

    general election. Indeed the stylistic and much praised series of Labour PEBs he helped to

    produced were such that Lord Hailsham, the Conservative Party Chairman, felt obliged to attack

    them for being “glossier than thou” (Bulmer Thomas 1967, 249).

     The most concerted and sustained appeals for a reorganisation of electoral strategy after

    1959 came from senior Gaitskellites and their rank and file supporters in the Campaign for

    Democratic Socialism (CDS) (Babaz 1980, 142). The Campaign, set up by several youthful

    supporters of the leader, organised itself during the critical period 1960-64 (Brivati 1992). Ex-

    MP Brian Magee, a founding member, later summed up the importance of group participants as

    the “modernisers” of their day (Brivati and Wincott 1993). CDS activists engaged themselves in

    the organisation of a grassroots campaign designed to win support for the leadership amongst the

    “quiet majority” of local party members whose views they assumed tallied with their own. If

    some have questioned the group’s success in reforming policy, it is undoubtedly the case that the

    Campaign had an effect on the organisation of campaigning.

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     Unlike other groups active in the party, the CDS excelled in its ability to pursue an

    informal public relations' strategy designed to promote the Gaitskellite case through quality and,

    on occasion, popular press coverage. Here the Campaign's work was facilitated by activists with

    media experience such as public relations consultant Denis Howell and political journalist Ivan

    Yates. These and other forerunners of what are now known as “spin doctors” targeted

    sympathetic newspaper journalists in the ultimate hope of influencing the course of Labour Party

    debates. Consequently the CDS, as Lord Windlesham noted, was able to build up an influential

    network of opinion forming media outlets such as The Times and The Guardian (Windlesham

    1966, 102). By contrast, CDS opponents had few sympathetic contacts working in the print

    media prepared or able to use their position to further the Labour left's cause (Jenkins 1979, 126-

    129). Despite the apparent imbalance in media publicity in favour of the right, the left did not

    suffer as greatly as it might have on account of the party's relatively strong horizontal structures,

    most obviously the Annual Conference.

     Another CDS supporter, Bernard Donoghue, was greatly influenced by his first hand

    experiences helping the Kennedy presidential campaign during 1960: “that did have quite an

    affect on me. When you came back from America the Labour Party really did look like

    something out of a museum” (Brivati and Wincott 1993, *********). Such a viewpoint did little

    but compound the notion that the work of Kennedy’s team and, before that, the Colman Prentis

    Varley advertising agency’s efforts on behalf of the Conservatives between 1957-59, had been

    crucial to the eventual outcome of the campaign. It was supported by a whole host of people with

    CDS connections in a range of publications including Political Quarterly, Socialist Commentary

    and a special Young Fabian Group report. As one advocate put it: .”..the truth is that modern

    advertising is scientific -- and no more. It is not by itself either good or evil,” before admitting “Of course, one doesn't try to promote the Labour Party like a soap powder...” (Labour Organiser

    1963, ********). Ultimately, perhaps, the most significant event during this period was the