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 toâ¯buildâ¯a business in a growing category;â¯simply outspend the competition and ride the wave. Ask anyone making meat-free burgers or low-alcohol beer.
But toâ¯turn around aâ¯category that people areâ¯desertingâ¯in drovesâ¯takes marketing superpowers. The most remarkable recent example is Sipsmith Gin, who defied the collapse ofâ¯theâ¯global gin marketâ¯to spur not only phenomenal growth for itself, but the revival ofâ¯theâ¯whole category.
Today, politics, too, is a category in decline, andâ¯currently,â¯Labour is the only partyâ¯strategically and politicallyâ¯capable of emulating Sipsmith’s achievements.
Politics – but not politicians. People have always distrusted the motivations and characterâ¯of politicians,â¯but democracy rests on the belief that government itselfâ¯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 isâ¯evidencedâ¯byâ¯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, governmentâ¯has been unable toâ¯bring down inflation, stop energy price rises, secure sufficient PPE to protect nurses, stop the boats, make schools safe, cutâ¯waiting lists, prevent industrial action, stop antisocialâ¯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 thatâ¯anyone believesâ¯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 crucialâ¯difference between today and 1997. Not only were we in a far better economic position; â¯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 ofâ¯that, manyâ¯people aliveâ¯at the time remembered the ability of government to defend the nation, deliver a welfare state and expand civil rights.
Inâ¯1997, people believed thatâ¯the UK government could deliver. In 2023, they don’t believe that any government has the power to makeâ¯the slightest bit of difference.
That is why politics is a category in decline.
And while the onlyâ¯avenueâ¯the Tories haveâ¯leftâ¯availableâ¯is to scrap for votes through a deliberate strategy of divisiveness, Labourâ¯has more options.
Keir Starmer can play the same game;â¯appealing forâ¯just enoughâ¯votes to get over the lineâ¯andâ¯yet again fighting for share in a declining market. Or he could fundamentally overturn the idea that government of any stripe is ineffective.
Labourâ¯couldâ¯spend the next year restoring British people’s belief in the basic concept of effective government –â¯to persuade people who might not vote at allâ¯that politics can once againâ¯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 aâ¯definitively different and better product. Sipsmith achieved this by restoring artisan copper-pot distilling to London, but inâ¯politics,â¯it’sâ¯easier said than done – especially with the lack of economic wiggleâ¯room available toâ¯any incoming government.
The second option requires aâ¯quality that has become almost mythical in politics: humility. Labour could restore faith in politics and underline its ownâ¯maturity andâ¯readiness to govern byâ¯championingâ¯real-world examples of effective governmentâ¯from across the political spectrumâ¯– proving that governmentsâ¯of all stripesâ¯can change things for the better.
In marketing, this is called doing a category job.
And it’sâ¯critical, because we have a new generation ofâ¯potentialâ¯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,â¯this strategy would see it proactivelyâ¯celebrate the powerâ¯and effectivenessâ¯of great government.
Because, while we desperately need saving from five more years of stagnation, cruelty and despair,â¯there is a far bigger prize at hand: the restoration ofâ¯effective government – and, with it, faith in our democracy itself.
Richard Huntington is the chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi