"Yet the internet and social networking sites remain poor relations when it comes to political communication..."
One thing you might not have noticed about Labour’s first two election broadcasts of this campaign: there were no politicians. The first consisted of a man facing a crossroads played by one of Britain’s more accomplished actors, with a voice-over from a former Dr Who. The second consisted of Eddie Izzard. But there was not a glimpse of Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Harriet Harman, or anyone else from Westminster.
This, in fact, has been the pattern for party election broadcasts since the 1980s, which is perhaps why the absence of politicians did not give rise to any comment. Occasionally a party might give viewers soap opera-style insights into their leader’s background and private life. What was dubbed ‘Kinnock: the Movie’ set that particular template, being so effective Labour showed it twice during the 1987 campaign. But these are rarities, and no one is expecting Labour to give Brown the Hollywood treatment this time.
The British Film Institute is now showing examples of ten past election broadcasts on its screenonline website, with introductions written by Philip Cowley and myself. What you will see there is how far their character has been transformed, from what (to modern eyes) are fairly tedious and incredibly long, straight-to-camera addresses to the pocket dramas we now take for granted.
The first election broadcasts were transmitted in 1951, when there were only 750,000 sets in the country, concentrated in affluent homes in South East England. This is why Labour’s first go consisted of two of its posher members making a pitch for the middle class vote, safe in the knowledge that no workers were watching. The broadcast also contained the first example of a rabid rebuttal, when Christopher Mayhew delicately corrected what he assured viewers were the undoubtedly honest mistakes contained in Sir Anthony Eden’s broadcast for the Conservatives the previous evening.
For a time, political commentators credited election broadcasts with a profound sway over voters' minds; by the mid-1960s the consensus was that they did not play a decisive role in changing voting intentions, although they might reinforce them. Sometimes, they could actually harm a party’s chances – as when the ‘war of Jennifer’s Ear’ derailed Labour’s 1992 campaign.
In our multi-channel world, the importance of the election broadcast has probably diminished: they are very easy to avoid these days. Perhaps one reason why the main parties have agreed to participate in the leaders' debates is because they need newer means to engage the voters.
The television producer Peter Bazalgette recently argued that now each party has its own YouTube channel, election broadcasts were redundant. He proposed that if the parties wanted to make their case on television they should pay the commercial rate. I am sure ITV would like the extra revenue. It is certainly notable that Labour first showed its broadcast this campaign on Youtube before they were shown on TV. Yet the internet and social networking sites remain poor relations when it comes to political communication. An insight into the changing nature of how the parties try to appeal to the people, the party election broadcast looks likely to stay with us for a few more elections yet.
Professor Steven Fielding