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National Level Direct Political Communication

Here we examine the different methods of political communication in British politics at a national but direct level.

The Political Speech

This was a major part of any election campaign until the 1960s. The leading politicians gave speeches to large audiences in the main cities and candidates gave speeches around the constituency at the local level.

Until the 1920s the speeches of national politicians appeared with almost no editing in newspapers such as The Times.

The political speech to the public no longer exists in Britain as a direct means of political communication with voters. Politicians still make them but now to party members or interest groups to convey ideas.

To a degree John Major in the 1992 election and Ed Miliband up to 2015 used direct contact by standing on a soapbox in the street and talking and answering questions to whoever was there but, as with the party and interest group speech, this was mainly to give an impression in the media rather than to communicate with large groups of voters as in the past.

In the absence of speeches, leading politicians in the last two or three decades have made more use of articles in leading newspapers knowing that they can put the points that they want to without the selectivity that other media coverage involves.

The Party Political Broadcast

The first party political broadcasts appeared on radio for the 1924 election and on television for the 1951 election, with the largest parties having the most time, but at least one slot for small parties if they field enough candidates.

Ofcom defines a list of major parties which can have broadcasts, based on past electoral performance, and parties contesting one-sixth of the seats are also entitled to a broadcast. Editorial control is with the parties, although Channel 4, at first, refused to take a BNP broadcast in 1992 and then required changes to make it less inflammatory.

The style has evolved from little more than recorded speeches to an interview format to something more similar to an extended TV advert. Early broadcasts were sometimes disastrous, so that Attlee answered the questions so quickly that the interviewer desperately had to think up more to fill the time and in others politicians were cut off in mid-sentence.

By the 1960s the parties were able to understand how television worked as a medium and the biopics of Kinnock in 1987 and Major in 1992 were seen as a successful use of the medium.

The value of broadcasts is uncertain and critics characterise them as men, mainly, talking down to the public and the use of ‘real’ people who never come across as authentic (the Greens used the Madwoman agency, which specialises in advertising that connects with women, to produce a different style for them).

Certainly from 2010 the party politicals were completely eclipsed by the leaders’ debates in terms of interest and impact. In 2015 the Green Party ran successful alternative party political broadcasts one depicted the leaders of the main parties, played by actors, in a boy-band.

The Political Advertisement

Political advertising has never been allowed on television or radio in Britain (the Communications Act 2003 is the current legislation), unlike the United States where it takes up a large part of candidates’ campaign expenditure.

Political parties have concentrated on street advertising hoardings, sometimes reinforced with similar adverts in the press, and can put across pretty much whatever message they want as the Advertising Standards Authority has refused to get involved in ruling on them.

Some advertisements have been notably successful, such as the 1978 Conservative advert ‘Labour isn’t Working’ with this slogan under a long dole queue, which had some effect on Callaghan postponing the general election in the autumn of that year, and the 1987 Conservative ‘Hands Up’ advert on Labour’s defence policy showing a soldier surrendering.

Expenditure on these adverts has fallen from £15.6m in 2005 to £9.1m in 2010 (£7.5m by the Conservatives). This may be partly due to their diminished effect and the fact that they can now be easily satirised in the social media. On the other hand the same social media allow parties to disseminate adverts ,using the same style as street posters, and videos very cheaply.

The political advertising used by the Leave campaign and UKIP during the European Referendum caused some controversy with the former claiming £350 million per week that currently goes to the EU would go into the NHS and the latter showing a picture of refugees.