Brand Health Check: Labour

As the campaigning gathers pace, Marketing's final pre-election special on the three main parties focuses on how Labour can ensure a third term in office.

Labour may be the favourite to win the election, but the signs are that, compared with the landslide victories of 1997 and 2001, it will not be an easy ride for Tony Blair. Its recent party political broadcast, featuring Blair and Gordon Brown, showed how worried Labour is. The rift between the two is no secret, and it is thought Blair's camp originally intended to marginalise the chancellor during this campaign. However, his return to centre stage is a tacit admission that Labour needs all the help it can get.

Perhaps Labour's biggest problem is the so-called 'trust issue' relating to the conflict in Iraq. It is two years since the fall of Baghdad, but events in the country have rarely been out of the headlines. The 'WMD case' for war, so emphatically expounded by the prime minister in 2003, has gradually been discredited, leading to a loss in support for Blair and his government, even among Labour MPs.

Labour also failed to set the agenda in early campaigning. While the resurgent opposition targeted voters in key marginals by focusing on immigration - an issue on which the government is perceived to be weak - Labour was forced onto the back foot by issues such as MRSA and vote-rigging by its councillors.

The party has sought to overcome its problems by highlighting its economic record. Using the campaign theme 'Forward, not back', it claims a Tory government would mean a return to the recession of the early-90s. It is a sign of how British politics has changed over the past decade that Labour can now lay claim to a reputation for economic stability, while portraying the Tories as financially reckless.

Despite this strength, the party is worried that many former Labour loyalists will register a protest vote or simply not vote at all. With turnout already expected to be low, this would leave the party vulnerable should the Tories succeed in galvanising their core support. After two elections spent chasing Daily Mail readers, Labour has found itself having to rebuild links with its traditional heartland.

We asked Martin Tod, head of brand and advertising at Vodafone UK, who is also the Lib Dem candidate for North West Hampshire, and McCann-Erickson's UK chairman, Rupert Howell, how Labour can get its supporters to turn out in force.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - MARTIN TOD, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT CANDIDATE FOR NORTH WEST HAMPSHIRE, AND HEAD OF BRAND AND ADVERTISING, VODAFONE UK

The New Labour relaunch was arguably the most successful brand repositioning of the 90s. With a new leader, policies and brand values, New Labour swept all before it.

In 2005, the Labour Party no longer seems so sure-footed. It has lost a chunk of its support to the Lib Dems, while Tory dog-whistling has also eroded its vote. Labour seems tired, out of touch, lacking ideas and, frankly, a bit boring and predictable.

Part of the problem is Tony Blair. Until the Iraq war, he scored much more positively than the party as a whole in opinion polling; since then, he has not.

The Iraq war also alienated Labour's core supporters. Part of the job of a political brand is to motivate its own party workers and the war in Iraq hit the organisation hard.

Lastly, the party has made the classic brand mistake of overpromising and underdelivering. Despite all the extra funds, making every decision in Whitehall is not working. Labour urgently needs to find some fresh ways to deliver on public services.

REMEDY

- Try to recapture the freshness and optimism of 1997. Be more positive and radical.

- It may be too late to get rid of Blair now, but dump him after the election. He is no longer a positive brand asset.

- Pull the troops out of Iraq. It is an issue that is alienating core supporters.

- Abandon centralised control. Cut back on bureaucracy and find new ways to empower staff enabling them to deliver public services effectively.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - RUPERT HOWELL CHAIRMAN, MCCANN-ERICKSON UK

I don't know how long you can carry on calling something 'new' because, by definition, at some point it no longer is. This is the problem facing the Labour Party brand as it enters the ultimate torture test - a general election.

When you are no longer 'new', you have to rely on your established brand strengths and equities. The problem is the Labour Party seems unsure as to what these are, or at least is unwilling to admit to them for fear of scaring 'Middle Britain'.

This leads to the sort of values vacuum that we have been witnessing for some time and the consequent disenchantment of vast swathes of the party's core supporters.Add to that a lack of trust, particularly in relation to the Labour leader (brand manager), and you have a potentially disastrous state of affairs.

In this situation, it is not surprising that Labour's only brand proposition seems to be 'not the Tory party'.

While Labour probably will be successful one last time, it is pretty pathetic for a brand that has enjoyed market dominance for eight years.

REMEDY

- Decide what the party stands for and promote it proudly.

- Behave like a mature brand not a newcomer (no more 'little Ant and Dec' interviews).

- Stop the bickering among the management team.

- Focus on Labour's achievements, not the party's deficiencies as perceived by others.

- If the brand manager is going to be changed, do it quickly.

VITAL SIGNS

LABOUR'S GENERAL ELECTION PERFORMANCE SINCE 1979

Votes (m) Share of vote (%) Seats won

May 1979 11.51 36.9 268

June 1983 8.46 27.6 209

June 1987 10.03 30.8 229

April 1992 11.56 34.4 271

May 1997 13.52 43.2 418

June 2001 10.72 40.7 412

Source: House of Commons Library

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