Fear and Loathing in Limehouse

Richard Holme

  • Campaign! The Selling of the Prime Minister by Rodney Tyler
    Grafton, 251 pp, £6.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 246 13277 9
  • Battle for Power by Des Wilson
    Sphere, 326 pp, £4.99, July 1987, ISBN 0 7221 9074 3
  • David Owen: Personally Speaking by Kenneth Harris
    Weidenfeld, 248 pp, £12.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 297 79206 7

The battle between the Conservative and Labour Parties during the last election was expressed almost exclusively in terms of menace. Which would the voters be more frightened of – loony Labour’s threat to Britain’s defence and personal prosperity or the hard-faced Conservatives’ dismemberment of health, education and welfare? ‘I wants to make your flesh creep,’ said the fat boy, and that is what the parties set out to do in 1987. As Rodney Tyler’s book shows, the key decision in the Conservative camp, on which all their three great warlords agreed – Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and Lord Young – as did their retinues of ad-men and advisers, was to run a campaign fuelled by fear, a re-run of ‘Don’t let Labour ruin it.’ Fear was a tune which the Prime Minister had practised assiduously over the years: fear of Scargill, fear of Galtieri, fear of inflation, fear of black and brown people. And in 1987, whatever the raggedness in the presentation of her own policies, she played it again to perfection.

In a book clearly designed to serve the interests of the Lord Young-Tim Bell faction in the intrigues around the Peacock Throne, the bathos of the story lies in the fact that no one actually disagreed that the old tune was the best. Faced with an agreeable opponent, attractively packaged together with his comely wife and presented to the public with thoroughly modern media skills, all the Tory professionals accepted that the correct response was to tear off the new Labour mask of humanistic pragmatism in order to reveal the familiar menace of ideological socialism which they believed they could show was still concealed behind it. A cynic might say there was nothing behind the media mask, but there is no doubt that the Tory task was made easier by the mistrust of Labour which had accumulated over a generation.

There is a debate among psephologists as to whether and why Labour is in long-term secular decline, as opposed to a bad patch. The 1987 result, which produced a minuscule revival for Labour from a low point in 1983, after a campaign which had looked easily the best of the three on television, seems to support the long-term decline theory. Some analysts attribute this to the demographic contraction of the traditional working-class base, some to the lack of appeal of collectivist and socialist values, and yet others to the apparent dominance of sectarian extremists in the Party, particularly in local government. Whatever the combination of reasons for Labour’s loss of appeal, the Tory campaign to incite fear of a Labour government fell on ready ears.

Yet the Prime Minister could hardly have been more helpful to Labour personally, in the way in which she seemed to seek out banana skins and leap upon them. In retrospect, it is more than a little ironic that Tory sources last spring were briefing lobby journalists to the effect that Mr Kinnock would crack under the pressure of a long campaign. As things turned out, it was the Iron Lady herself who showed repeated signs of metal fatigue.

From her initial promise to go ‘on and on’, to the bizarre press conference where she paraded her whole Cabinet jammed together side by side – in Hugo Young’s savage phrase, a row of ‘tight-assed men hoping to have a “good war” ’ – to her improvisation of an opt-out policy for state schools which was obviously new to her Secretary of State, to her spirited defence of her own right to have medical treatment where and when she chose to pay for it, to her final characterisation of caring and compassion as ‘drool and drivel’ – Mrs Thatcher was supremely herself. In the process of self-revelation, she managed to confirm every adverse stereotype of her style and values with which her opponents had hoped to make the electorate’s flesh creep.

Nevertheless, in the event, fear of Labour exceeded fear of Mrs Thatcher. The Tory tune drowned out that of its rival, and muffled the Alliance. It is tempting to attribute the Conservative victory to the fact that they could muster a larger and more expensive band to thump out their tune. ‘I’ve already cleared it with Alistair and we’ve got the money,’ to quote Mr Tyler quoting Lord Young. The jovial Lord MacAlpine, Tory Treasurer and Alistair to his friends in the City, signed a cheque for a more concentrated burst of press advertising than has ever been seen in British politics, with £2.5 million spent over the last week of the campaign.

This generous profusion was certainly good for the press – it may even have helped the Independent to turn the corner financially – but it is unlikely to have had much effect on the election result. A study of the 1983 General Election showed that, according to the voters themselves, press advertising was the form of communication which moved them least in making their choice between parties. The Conservative share in the polls in 1987 on the day Tim Bell rode into Downing Street on a white charger was 44 per cent. One week later, after the expenditure of all the serious money on advertising, their share of votes came out at ... 43 per cent. It wasn’t the media in 1987 which gave Mrs Thatcher her third historic victory. It was her megaphone message.

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