Voices: Thatcher ad chief: We don’t want five more years of cruelty with the Tories

There is a far bigger prize at hand: the restoration of effective government (PA Wire)
There is a far bigger prize at hand: the restoration of effective government (PA Wire)

With Labour almost certain to be the largest party after next year’s general election, the big question now is whether Keir Starmer can pull off a majority, or even a landslide.

A clue to how this might be done comes not from decades of political communications expertise at Saatchi & Saatchi, but from our day-to-day brand experience – and an adland adage more commonly applied to fast-moving consumer goods: the hardest task in marketing is to grow a declining category.

It’s easy to build a business in a growing category; simply outspend the competition and ride the wave. Ask anyone making meat-free burgers or low-alcohol beer.

But to turn around a category that people are deserting in droves takes marketing superpowers. The most remarkable recent example is Sipsmith Gin, who defied the collapse of the global gin market to spur not only phenomenal growth for itself, but the revival of the whole category.

Today, politics, too, is a category in decline, and currently, Labour is the only party strategically and politically capable of emulating Sipsmith’s achievements.

Politics – but not politicians. People have always distrusted the motivations and character of politicians, but democracy rests on the belief that government itself can be an effective force for good in people’s lives – and that is what is currently under threat.

This is not an academic issue – we know what happened across Europe in the 1930s, and what is happening in the coup belt of Africa today, where democratic governments seem impotent to protect their people.

In the UK, this decline is evidenced by six decades of dwindling voter turnout. Indeed, the level of voting among the young is so disastrously low that it calls the democratic legitimacy of any government into question.

This is not because of the old trope that there is no point in voting because all the parties are the same. It is because government itself seems entirely powerless as an entity.

In recent years, government has been unable to bring down inflation, stop energy price rises, secure sufficient PPE to protect nurses, stop the boats, make schools safe, cut waiting lists, prevent industrial action, stop antisocial behaviour, or even complete a railway project.

Government – not “the government”. Because, while people are desperate for an end to the grinding sacrifice of the past 15 years, there is no sense that anyone believes the solution lies in a change to the party in power. That’s certainly what our research at Saatchi & Saatchi is telling us.

Regrettably, the idea of effective government has receded from the national consciousness.

This is a crucial difference between today and 1997. Not only were we in a far better economic position;  in terms of global influence, we believed that government could change things.

And this wasn’t simply a belief in Tony Blair’s agenda and charisma. Whether you loved or hated her, Margaret Thatcher was the embodiment of effective government. On top of that, many people alive at the time remembered the ability of government to defend the nation, deliver a welfare state and expand civil rights.

In 1997, people believed that the UK government could deliver. In 2023, they don’t believe that any government has the power to make the slightest bit of difference.

That is why politics is a category in decline.

And while the only avenue the Tories have left available is to scrap for votes through a deliberate strategy of divisiveness, Labour has more options.

Keir Starmer can play the same game; appealing for just enough votes to get over the line and yet again fighting for share in a declining market. Or he could fundamentally overturn the idea that government of any stripe is ineffective.

Labour could spend the next year restoring British people’s belief in the basic concept of effective government – to persuade people who might not vote at all that politics can once again make a difference to their lives. That it matters if you vote, and it matters who you vote for.

This is a hard sell, because it requires one of two things.

The first is a definitively different and better product. Sipsmith achieved this by restoring artisan copper-pot distilling to London, but in politics, it’s easier said than done – especially with the lack of economic wiggle room available to any incoming government.

The second option requires a quality that has become almost mythical in politics: humility. Labour could restore faith in politics and underline its own maturity and readiness to govern by championing real-world examples of effective government from across the political spectrum – proving that governments of all stripes can change things for the better.

In marketing, this is called doing a category job.

And it’s critical, because we have a new generation of potential voters whose only frame of reference is 15 years of national regression since the global financial crisis.

Rather than Labour focusing its energy and resources on stoking the Tories’ self-immolation, this strategy would see it proactively celebrate the power and effectiveness of great government.

Because, while we desperately need saving from five more years of stagnation, cruelty and despair, there is a far bigger prize at hand: the restoration of effective government – and, with it, faith in our democracy itself.

Richard Huntington is the chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi