‘Putting a factory on stage will tell you nothing about capitalism.’
When Gordon Brown announced that he is stepping down as an MP, after more than thirty years of service, at the General Election in May, he fired a parting shot at modern politics by railing against the idea of political parties being considered as brands.
“Sometimes politics is seen at best as a branch of the entertainment industry,” said Mr Brown. “There are times when political parties seem not to be agents of change but brands to be marketed to people who are seen as consumers, when they are really citizens with responsibilities.”
Mr Brown was big on his “belief in the moral purpose of public service”, but his premiership ultimately floundered on his mangling of the New Labour brand and his innate capacity for public relation disasters; think of Gillian Duffy; recall his “saved the world” slip at Prime Minister’s Questions; even when trying to soften his image by smiling, Mr Brown encountered ridicule.
The former Chancellor’s infamous big clunking fist style of politics proved too heavy-handed for the British electorate, and as a consequence the party brand became toxic because of his role as leader; Mr Brown spoiled the New Labour brand.
The idea of UK political parties as ideological movements alone is fanciful and needs to be consigned to another political era. Voters think less about policies nowadays, and instead consider what they are buying in to when voting for a party. In a consumer-driven society, political parties and their respective leaders are judged in the same way as major companies and their CEOs are: in terms of performance, trust and brand loyalty. In the run-up to the General Election on May 7th, David Cameron’s Conservatives and Ed Miliband’s Labour party can expect to be critiqued by the electorate just as Tim Cook (Apple) or Rupert Stadler (Audi) are by their shareholders. How well have Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband delivered their parties’ brand? An easy answer can be found by the fact no one mentions ‘Big Society’ or ‘One Nation’ these days.
Poor brand management of the respective political parties perhaps underlies the reasons why many polls suggest that no party will have an overall majority come election day. Since the formation of the coalition government, each of the main parties have watched their brand equity steadily diminish; a combination of contempt for the party leaders, banking, expenses and tax scandals, broken promises from the last General Election, and fuzzy and disjointed campaign messages have led to further political disillusionment and apathy.
Going against this trend, however, is a brand that has become very successful, very quickly: the UK Independence party. Its image of outsider rebelliousness, bound up with a corporate, Oxbridge similarity to all the other main parties, encapsulated in the strangely bucolic figure of leader Nigel Farage, has struck a chord with many people.
The advertising agency Isobel carried out a survey on the most hated brands in Britain, and political parties made up four of the ten findings: Liberal Democrats were sixth, Labour came fifth, while the Tories finished second. Populist upstart UKIP finished top of the class. Considering the Marmite appeal of his party, Mr Farage will drink happily from such a poisoned well. For one thing that comes close to the value of brand appeal, is brand awareness, and for a party that gained its first MP only last year, UKIP has quickly become a trademark on everyone’s lips. Which of the parties we will be talking about as power brokers when the results come trickling in on May 8th, still remains to be seen, however.
In light of the recent Central Remedial Clinic scandal, the muddy waters of the Nama allegations, and the general fecklessness of the Irish Government and their deluded crowing over the bailout exit, I was struck by re-reading the words of the Irish revolutionary – written in 1798 in relation to his own people, the Anglo-Irish of the ascendancy – which could easily apply to ‘establishment Ireland’ today:
‘They have disdained to occupy the station they might have held among the People, and which the People would have been glad to see them fill. They see Ireland only in their rent rolls, their places, their patronage, their pensions. They shall perish like their own dung.’
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