Lessons from British general election

How the ‘hype over substance’ approach went wrong.

May 12, 2010 21:12
New British Prime Minister David Cameron greets le

Cameron Clegg shake 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)


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Giving birth can be a helter-skelter ride for expectant mothers and fathers as well as family and friends.

Rather like the last UK general election.

In the months leading up to the due date – May 6 – the main political leaders glowed with vitality and charm.

The new face of conservatism was David Cameron: a well-heeled toff who was elected Tory leader at 39 and carefully branded to come across as a kind of golden child offspring of a benevolent Tony Blair and a firm Margaret Thatcher. He was neatly packaged, complete with an alluring wife who just happened to announce her own pregnancy a few weeks before the election.

Gordon Brown was marketed with the grammatically curious slogan, “A future fair for all.”

He was the man with a plan who, despite going against his own fiscal promises, offered austere substance and policies rather than glitzy fluff.

Finally there was Nick Clegg, the white rabbit always late to that interminable “important date,” nervously chasing rainbows of promises and deals down eternal burrows riddled throughout the changing political landscape.

TRUTH IS skin-deep. As the campaign gathered pace, leaders polished public perceptions.

By the beginning of the year an Israeli-styled open-shirted Cameron was pictured on billboards, his skin allegedly Photoshopped to perfection as he stood against the Obama-esque slogan, “Vote for Change” and headline “...We can’t go on like this...”

Neither, as it turned out could his constituency, which lampooned the poster throughout the Web.

Then it was the Brown marketing team’s turn. Its solution for authenticity was to get the ordinary public to create a poster.

A design by the people for the people promised the UK’s first truly democratic piece of political advertising. The poster featured David Cameron as the fictional TV maverick, Gene Hunt.

Within hours of the poster’s launch, the Conservatives blasted it, noting Labor’s failure to grasp that in popular TV culture, Hunt, was applauded as a straight-talking cult hero. Cameron was so delighted with the opposition’s campaign that he even offered to chip in some money toward it.

Meanwhile Nick Clegg, ever unsure of where his appointment with fate would lead, cobbled together the slogan: “Change that works for you – building a fairer Britain.”

It was as confused as his party’s statements on Israel: “I have tremendous admiration for the State of Israel and its people,” while last December his party supported a draft bill allowing UK citizens to apply for the arrest of Israeli politicians for “war crimes” while on British soil.

WITH LESS than a month left until polling day, the leaders, by then visibly pregnant with hope, began three weekly US presidential-style debates.

It was a first for a country accustomed to formal five or ten minute political broadcasts styled on the annual queen’s speech; complete with clips of babies, workers, stirring music and slick aerial shots of a “greater Britain,” thrown in for good measure.

The debates gave the white rabbit from nowhere a chance to tweak his whiskers. Starstruck viewers liked how he purposefully looked down the barrel of the TV camera, and remembered studio audience members by name.

Meanwhile Cameron and Brown did what Blues and Reds were expected to do: turn the other’s cheeks purple with frustration.

Yet, while the debates were entertaining, no one quite understood what any of the parties stood for.

Endless satellite discussions were sparked throughout the Web, radio and TV. Pointing out that serious national issues had been reduced to sound bites, pundits mused over whether this was more like an American Idol contest than a political race.

THE EVENING of the election witnessed queues of voters being turned away because they broke the Queensbury rule of being late for an appointment. (Voting closed at 10 p.m. – irrespective of who was still in line).

The next morning the nation woke to a “hung Parliament.”

Spin doctors paced nervously like frustrated expectant fathers, waiting to hear if it was boy or girl.

Meanwhile, noting that votes could easily be switched by anyone claiming to be the owner of a ballot card, the Royal Commonwealth Society warned the UK system “relies a great deal on trust” which may have worked in the past, but could have to be reformed in the future.

Almost a week after the expected birth date, an eventual compromise coalition had to be scratched out.

It would call for a breach birth – the child dragged out alive and kicking through an emergency caesarean.

Failing to make heads or tails of a compromise deal with the white rabbit, Brown publicly accepted his own blame for not delivering a resounding victory.

In the end, the Conservatives had no other option but to broker a strange joint custody of a new government between themselves and long-term rivals – the Liberal Democrats. In so doing they have finally given the white rabbit an appointment that even he would never had assumed: kingmaker to David Cameron.

So we are left with David Cameron as prime minister, Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister and William Hague (Conservative) as foreign secretary (big sigh of relief for Israel); George Osborne as chancellor (Conservative); Dr. Liam Fox as defense secretary (Conservative); Andrew Lansley as health secretary (Conservative); Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat) in business and banking; and Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) for energy and climate change.

With the sex unclear, the new baby government (incidentally featuring the youngest British prime minister since 1812) won’t be having a pidyon haben.

However one thing is for certain: The national brit mila will come about by the way of cuts in services and hikes in taxes.

So then, less of a resounding mazal tov and more of a muted jolly well done (as it appears the Brits have all been had).

The writer is a journalist and commentator from Brandforensics.co.uk London.

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