Jo Cox MP

Like many I was shocked by the murder of the Batley MP, Jo Cox yesterday.  I didn’t know her and I didn’t share many of her views in politics however I could see that she was someone who stood up for her beliefs and based those beliefs on her many years of charity work.  It appears she was a politician who could work across the political divide and who would seek to grow consensus on the issues she addressed.  She will be missed and I hope that her successor matches her ideals and values.

This is usually a marketing blog and as such the following comments need to be made.

When I was young, politics was seen by most people as old men in grey suits discussing obtuse matters in a boring way.  The prime minister would likely employ a senior journalist to run his press office.  This person would issue press statements and administer the prime ministers contact with the media but that would be about it.

That all changed when Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Thatcher had used image consultants to develop a political persona.  She also used media experts, advertising firms and marketing strategists to develop her campaigns.  Throughout her premiership, she was careful to reject policies that she saw as either politically unacceptable or which did not match her ‘marketing strategy’.  Her downfall was closely related to the one policy where she failed to follow this mantra.  The community charge, more usually referred to as the poll tax, was not something she personally favoured.  She was, unusually, pressured into the policy by her cabinet and by Scottish Conservative MPs fearful of the effect a long overdue rate revaluation would have on their chances of re-election.

If Margaret Thatcher started the use of marketing theory in British politics, the concept was turbo-charged by Tony Blair.  Blair had recognised that television and the emerging internet would put a huge focus on the soundbite.  It was during the Blair era that politicians began the never-ending repetition of slogans and soundbites in interviews and in speeches.

One reason for Blair’s constant repetition of phrases such as “Education, Education and Education and “hardworking families” was to get those phrases included in short news bulletins.  The other reason was a practice called neuro-linguistic programming.

NPL is a psychological technique.  It is used by the likes of Derren Brown, the illusionist, and Paul McKenna, the hypnotist.  It mixes elements of hypnotism with psychological theory. One technique used is the continual repetition of key phrases.  Another NPL technique is the mirroring of others.  I can still remember a piece of video of Tony Blair and George Bush Jnr at Camp David.  Blair had NPL down to such a fine art, he was mirroring George Bush’s walk and posture.

Today, the marketing strategies used by Blair dominate politics and the use of marketing strategy is the dominant form of political campaigning.  However, these techniques are often misused or misunderstood by the politicians attempting to use them.

Phrases are repeated so often they become platitudes. the repetition of NPL should be subconscious; a rare occurrence today.

This focus on repetition and soundbites devalues politics and is a mis-application of marketing theory.  It has also downgraded debate.  One thing politicians should be doing is educating the electorate as to their case.  Sound bites do not educate.

A basic law in marketing is to be truthful.  You can lie and you may sell your product once but it is unlikely that you can lie and sell your product more than once.

This brings us to the current EU referendum campaign.  This campaign is a new nadir in British politics.  It repeatedly breaches the honesty rule and both sides are guilty.  Here are two examples.

Leave promote their case using the £350 million a week figure.  This figure has repeatedly been shown to be both false and misleading.  Despite this being repeatedly pointed out to the Leave camp, they had not amended their literature or stopped using the claim.

Last week, the Remain camp focused on the border between the UK and Eire, stating that Brexit would mean customs posts either on the border or in Belfast.  This was despite of the fact that the UK and Eire have a separate free movement agreement than that of the EU; that neither country is part of the Shengen area; and that cross border smuggling in Northern Ireland, particularly of petrol, is a current live issue.

Add to this level of dishonest campaigning the propaganda spouted by the UK tabloid press.  This form of media has a Brexit focus and over the past few years, it has ramped up anti-EU and anti-immigrant propaganda.  The Daily Express, for example, has published 32 anti-immigration front pages this year alone.  That is more than one a week.  Almost all of these headlines put the blame for illegal immigration at the door of the EU.

Politicians and the media have a responsibility to the public as to how they present their policies.  They also have a responsibility to foresee the potential impact on British society of their actions.  The death of Jo Cox may not be directly attributable to sound-bite politics and to the ramped up xenophobia of both the tabloids and the EU debate, but it is clear that the campaign ignores this responsibility.