Most voters are profoundly uninterested in politics and cannot follow complex economic debates. Martin Rosenbaum says politicians should not be blamed for simplifying their messagesby Martin Rosenbaum / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Those involved in fighting the coming election may be interested in this advice from a successful political communicator on getting your point across:
“If you can’t sum it up in a sentence or even a phrase, forget it. To avoid misinterpretation, strip down a policy or opinion to one key clear line before the media does it for you. The truth becomes almost impossible to communicate because total frankness, relayed in the shorthand of the mass media, becomes a weapon in the hands of opponents.”
The validity of this advice is confirmed by the fact that its author might today be more wary about dispensing it, in case it is misinterpreted by those who now scrutinise his every word. For this is the campaigning philosophy of Tony Blair, as he expressed it ten years ago in an article in The Times.
Both Blair and his opponents seem to be sticking to this guidance. To judge by party posters, broadcasts, politicians’ interviews and prime minister’s question time, Labour’s pitch to the electorate has been stripped down to “Enough is Enough,” while the Conservative message comes in slightly longer at “New Labour, New Danger.”
The slogan repeated ad nauseam is just one aspect of the superficiality of modern electioneering. It is accompanied by that ever shrinking soundbite: in the 1960s Harold Macmillan complained that his interview answers on television were “boiled down to 50 seconds”-today he would be lucky to get half that time. Then there is the new importance of the photo opportunity: politicians who want to communicate their caring nature are filmed visiting hospitals and chatting to patients, while those who want to seem up to date tour high-tech factories.
This is accompanied by high-minded protests from the commentators who write articles which always end by asking the question: do politicians really think that voters are that stupid? The answer, of course, is yes, and the problem is that in a sense they are right. Actually, it is not so much that many voters are stupid, but that millions are deeply ignorant of politics, have little interest in acquiring more knowledge, and are too innumerate to follow complex debates about tax and public spending, let alone the Euro.
Most voters get their political information from tabloid newspapers and brief items on television news. Parties have to recognise this reality and make their few core messages short and simple. Both Conservatives and Labour are now concentrating their advertising spending on posters with aggressive, attention-grabbing slogans. This is the only way to get at large numbers of people who avoid television news and do not even read the limited political coverage in their favourite tabloid.
Psephological research shows that the crucial floating voters tend to be particularly ill-informed, uninterested, and influenced by personalities rather than issues, image rather than policy, and negative messages rather than positive ones. So there is no point blaming politicians for the trivialisation of campaigning. While they may bear some responsibility for improving the level of political debate, they have a greater and more immediate responsibility: to win elections for the causes they represent.
This is not to say that there was a golden age of electioneering in which the rationality of political debate was matched by the detailed attention paid to it by the mass of voters. Observers have always found much to criticise. The seminal study of late Victorian party organisation by MY Ostrogorski derided the “official theory of the canvass… which represents the canvasser as a sort of travelling professor of political science,” arguing that canvassers addressed themselves “not to the intelligence of voters but to their ignorance, to their credulity… and most easily roused feelings.”
Or take the first campaign to exploit modern methods of communication-the Conservative effort in 1959, which relied on an unprecedented use of press and poster ads produced by a professional advertising agency. This angered the distinguished journalist Henry Fairlie, who denounced the Tories for treating “the electors as conditioned morons, who could be won by the methods used by commercial advertisers… It would scarcely have mattered if instead of Conservatism the copy had been dealing with cod liver oil.”
The truth is that voters who want detailed debate about political issues can get it. Anyone who reads a broadsheet newspaper carefully and listens to current affairs programmes on television and radio will soon be very well informed about the choices facing Britain. But most people do not want to do this, and those who do are more likely to be committed supporters of one particular party, so under the present electoral system there is not much point in chasing their vote.
So if you find the current British electoral spectacle distasteful, here are some more words of Tony Blair to remember. Asked recently to justify his appearance on light entertainment television, he explained: “Many more people have talked to me about appearing on the Des O’Connor show than about Labour’s latest policy launch or initiative. In one sense it’s very frustrating as a politician, but that’s where it is.”