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[ANALYSIS] Will it work? Evoking the fear factor

Surveys showing a massive 9% swing towards Labour are the logic behind the PN’s fear campaign in its new ‘Labour won’t work’ billboard. But will this work to cut Labour’s lead?

James Debono
7 August 2012, 12:00am
The negative billboard priority at the moment is to erode Labour’s lead by instilling doubt among those 10% of voters who chose PN in 2008, but who now say they intend to vote for Labour.
By resurrecting Margaret Thatcher's classic 'Labour still Isn't Working' slogan, created by ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi in 1979 with its foreboding 'Labour Won't Work' slogan showing a queue of unemployed people, the PN has sent a clear message that it is banking on the fear of Labour eroding one of the few certainties offered by the present government: a relatively low level of unemployment.

Superficially, this raises doubts on the originality of the PN's marketing division, which had to resort to some historical plagiarism.

Still, one can reply to that by noting that this happens all over the world, as demonstrated by Mitt Romney's evocation of the Saatchi classic with an 'Obama Isn't Working' slogan. Ultimately, a good slogan can work in circumstances similar to those evoked in the original context.

But the problem in this case is that the circumstances are not the same. Significantly, while Thatcher and more recently Romney banked on the perceived and real failures of government's sitting-in-office, the PN's slogan conjures fears in an opposition which has been out of office since 1998. This one's going to be tough for the PN...

Survey-driven campaign

The negative billboard priority at the moment is to erode Labour's lead by instilling doubt among those 10% of voters who chose PN in 2008, but who now say they intend to vote for Labour.

Surveys show that the PN could cut the gap if it wins back former Nationalist voters who now intend not to vote or are still undecided, but which are still not enough to win the election.

As things stand, the PN knows that surveys show it has no chance of winning as long as the 9-point swing persists and is not significantly reduced and compensated for by a new influx of new, young PN voters.

Therefore the PN has clearly embarked on a four-pronged campaign informed by surveys, namely: target former PN voters who intend not to vote, target apolitical voters who only care about their immediate concerns, target new and young voters, and erode trust in a future Labour government.

The choice of a negative billboard seems to indicate that fear of Labour is being given precedence over capitalising on the shaky record of the present government. In fact, many were expecting the PN to counter Labour's negative campaign with a positive one, emphasising the government's accomplishments.

Still, this element could come at a later stage - probably after the next budget when the government could try to deliver its tax reform pledge, even at the risk of appearing populist.

But taken in isolation, the  billboard raises questions on the PN's initial approach to the campaign: is fear enough to move the crucial category of voters the PN has correctly identified? And why doesn't the PN emphasise that the government is actually working, before conjuring fears of a Labour future? Does this suggest that the government has so far little to show off?

And crucially, while the PN won in 2008 by evoking hope that "together everything is possible"... is the party now simply banking on fear?

Historical parallels

One notable difference is that Thatcher's 'Labour Isn't Working' was rooted in a present marked by rising unemployment and political instability, while the PN's 'Labour Won't Work' is a foreboding warning about a potential future under Labour. 

Similarly, Mitt Romney's simultaneous 'Obama is not working' is also rooted in Obama's current economic problems.

The major weakness of the PN campaign is that it banks on fear of uncertainty, rather than tangible problems in the present. Ironically, the perception that James Callaghan's Labour government was rooted in the instability of his government was much like Gonzi's internal rifts... notwithstanding Callaghan's being of a more ideological nature.

Like Gonzi, Callaghan also had to resort to coalition government, albeit of a more real nature than Gonzi's arrangements with individual backbenchers.

Labour had lost its majority in the House of Commons, forcing Callaghan to deal with minor parties such as the Liberal Party - especially in the Lib-Lab pact from 1977 to 1978. Industrial disputes and widespread strikes in the 'Winter of Discontent' of 1978-79, made Callaghan's government unpopular. The government was forced out of power through the passage of a motion of no confidence on 28 March 1979.

Callaghan also faced the first global post-war crisis in capitalism but unlike him, Gonzi can still bank on his only major success: low unemployment figures despite an international crisis which pushed unemployment to record heights in many other neighbouring countries.

Capitalising on only certainty?

In fact, the PN's campaign is based on the only major certainty of the Nationalist present: that despite increasing precariousness and part-time employment, employment figures remain high.

One major weakness of such a campaign is that people tend to take having a job for granted and would only feel the pinch when their job security is actually threatened. 

It also ignores the fact that according to surveys, while unemployment ranks low in public concerns, dissatisfaction over falling living standards due to a decline in purchasing power ranks even higher.

It also ignores the fact that Malta is officially in recession, and actual figures show that unemployment is actually increasing (albeit marginally).

Still, the campaign could bank on the employment records of past Labour governments, including the abysmal one of the 1996-1998 Sant-led government.

Fear of a presidential campaign

Significant is the fact that while Mitt Romney is actually targeting Obama personally in the same way Labour is doing with its billboards, the PN has deliberately chosen not to attack Joseph Muscat.

Interestingly, the PN is so far refraining from the 1996 mistake where it focused on Alfred Sant's character through the slogan 'Ma Tistax Tafdah' ('You Can't Trust Him').

This could be an admission that the electorate is more apprehensive of Labour, with its baggage of an authoritarian and anti-EU past, than on Joseph Muscat - who over the past few years has managed to create a public image which appeals to a category of former Nationalist voters. 

It could also signal a reluctance to engage in a presidential campaign pitting Gonzi against Muscat, putting instead the emphasis on a contrast between the PN's economic record and Labour's.

In some ways, although negative the PN's billboard banks on the relatively positive economic record of successive Nationalist governments, and Labour's more stormy record. On this aspect the PN's dilemma is whether to project Gonzi as presidential leader as it did with the plagiarised Sarkozy slogan 'Together everything is possible'. 

Indeed, by starting the campaign negatively, the PN has postponed this issue. Ultimately, the PN will have to prove that the Nationalist Party is "working" in government. Projecting a more collegial leadership this time around - which represents historical continuity - could be more effective than projecting Gonzi solo as in 2008. In this sense, Alfred Sant's successful troika campaign in 1996 could be an example to emulate.

Labour's wit

Labour deliberately wants to personalise the campaign, banking on the trust lead Joseph Muscat enjoys in surveys when respondents are asked which leader they trust most. It could also be banking on a category of former Nationalist voters who are anti-Gonzi.

In this way, Labour faces the risk of presenting itself as an anti-Gonzi front rather than an alternative government with concrete policies. Depicting Gonzi as the devil incarnate could also backfire with moderate voters who have a more nuanced view of politics and of Gonzi's mixed record in government.

Surely Labour has so far shown more wit in its campaign in its bid to capture the imagination of voters, not just through its striking billboards depicting Gonzi in the most uncomfortable of positions, but also by setting a rival billboard pointing to the PN's empty billboard as representing an "absent government". 

Still, in this way, Labour also risks appearing petty, giving the impression that it is gloating at the PN's late start in the billboard campaign. In fact, Labour is walking on a fine line between appearing witty and childish - some ask: where is the beef?

The PN's billboard in fact fails in exposing Labour's policy gaps and superficial populism, focusing instead on more irrational and generic fears of Labour evoking some sort of doomsday scenario if Labour wins an election. This could sink in with voters who would ultimately vote PN.

But does it work with those voters who have doubts on Labour but are turned off by exaggerated claims and apocalyptical scenarios? In this sense the billboards of both parties are a turn off for the middle-of-the-road voter.

Apolitical voters

One major problem posed by the PN's resort to scaremongering billboards is that of conflicts with other messages being sent to the electorate. For just two days after sending an email inviting voters to enjoy the summer away from political strife, the PN has set up its belligerent billboard, which confirms that the electoral campaign is in full swing.

Surely the PN can say that it was Labour who started this tit-for-tat by setting up billboards as far back as last December.

The PN's email campaign is directly targeting apolitical voters whose interest in politics is limited to which party creates the least risk to their personal well-being. 

In fact Gonzi's personalised letter is directly addressed to this category of voters presently more inclined to enjoy summer than follow political intrigues. In his e-mailshot Gonzi empathises with these voters, giving them the impression that he in synch with their lifestyle.

"I'm looking forward to spending more time with Kate, our children and my four grandchildren, and I hope that you too will enjoy this period with your loved ones," Gonzi tells his internet followers.

But he also added a politically reassuring note that "we're there to see that your job remains secure and job opportunities increase; we're there to see that your standard of living keeps improving as it has done in the last years; we're there to see that education and healthcare remain national priorities".

The problem with these emails is that these are being sent to all sundry. More politically-inclined people may find the PM's relaxed approach as an inadequate response in a moment of deep political crisis, economic recession and uncertainty.

James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
Andrew Vella
ciccio, I'm sorry for any of these who are still looking for work, I don't think there are many, by the way, and that is the whole point which you seem to have missed. Most of us are no longer concerned about 'jobs for life', these are getting fewer in all modern economies.
Anthony Galea
AVElLLAm why don't you ask the workers who lost their jobs under PN? They will tell you which Government concerns them most. Ask 500 Air Malta workers, who lost their jobs and 70% of their wages went on high salaried foreigners. Ask several others Bus owners, Taxis, Manufactuting Industry who all received an assurance by Gonzi that their employment is safe. And what about the New Power Station which has to be converted from Heavy fuel oil at the expense of Euro 200 Million?
Andrew Vella
James when I saw this billboard I thought it was spot on, it was a direct challenge to the PL and Joseph Muscat to reassure those who, like me, are concerned about our jobs and our children's future. For me certainly, PL's 'witty', as you put it, response was VERY disappointing..