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Breakfast with Frost
On Sunday, 03 August 2003, Breakfast with Frost featured an interview with Lord Bell and Peter Kellner

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Lord Bell - Mrs Thatcher's former PR adviser
Lord Bell is helping the current Conservative leadership

PETER SISSONS: Now Iain Duncan Smith must have headed off for his summer break with a spring in his step - for the first time since the petrol crisis his party is ahead in the polls.

But the big question for him and his advisors is whether they can stay ahead. Well to try to help them do that party managers have called back into service some of their most experienced public relations experts to help polish their image and sharpen their message.

Foremost among them is Tim Bell, now Lord Bell, famous for his work with Margaret Thatcher, and he joins us now. And I'm also joined by the leading political analyst Peter Kellner. Welcome both. Tim, first, how big is the job they've given you?

TIM BELL: Well the job is enormous because the Labour Party has a 170 seat majority in the House of Commons and the Conservative Party's been in the low 30s for about ten, 12 years, so it's a huge task.

PETER SISSONS: Conventional wisdom is that negative messages in politics always work better than positive ones. Would you agree with that?

TIM BELL: I think it's true because I think what happens is that people vote against the existing government rather than for the opposition.

If you look at, if you look at the history of post-war politics in Britain, in almost every case the government has lost the election rather than the opposition winning it.

PETER SISSONS: So you'd be wasting your money doing a poster saying IDS is a nice, quiet man you can trust. It's much better to have a picture of Tony Blair - as you have done already - with a big long nose, calling him Pinocchio.

TIM BELL: Well I think you may remember that the current prime minister has got a poster saying how much you can trust him and I think that's probably not how the people feel at the moment and so that is what is known as a hostage to fortune.

No it isn't so much that you have to do negative things, that they're the only thing that works, it's because you have to do things that actually resonate with the current mood that people have.

And what happens when you've got a government in power is the mood changes as people become fed up with it. So you need to resonate with that mood rather than with an excitement about the opposition party.

PETER SISSONS: Peter, when Tim and his friends are up to speed, do you think Labour have something to fear, because they've got a very good track record on these posters, haven't they?

Peter Kellner
Competition for nose growing? I don't think it will be won by the Labour Party


Indeed I think Tim was involved in that famous Tory poster in 1979, Labour isn't working, when we had a Labour government where unemployment had gone up.

But of course that's now, you couldn't repeat that now because unemployment went far higher with the Tories and it's come down again under Labour.

I think the problem with the Pinocchio ad, with Tony Blair's nose, is that the Tories are open to attack by people who remember Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer, Neil Hamilton, three very prominent Conservatives, two of whom went to jail, effectively for perjury, and the other lost out a libel case, Neil Hamilton, when the courts basically decided he was lying.

Well nobody in the present government is anywhere near - you know, if we're going to have a competition for nose growing, I don't think it will be won by the Labour Party. TIM BELL: I think however people might think lying about the reasons for a war is rather more important than lying about who paid the bill in a hotel in Paris. So I think there, I think there is a completely different issue. Also, of course, none of the people you've mentioned were prime ministers, they were simply junior members of the government.

PETER KELLNER: One was in the Cabinet, one was a minister of state, one had been deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, all at the times when the perjuries were committed.

PETER SISSONS: But this business of trust, Tim, and the polls showing that it's been evaporating, public trust in Tony Blair is ebbing away and that was his real strong card, is do you feel that is really where your pressure point is going to be?

TIM BELL: It's, it's the thing to be talking about at the moment. Where we'll be in a year or two year's time when the election is called, I've no idea. But the particular issue at the moment is that the Labour government came to power on the basis of saying that people could trust it - in particular they could trust it not to put up taxes.

What that poster says is they have put up taxes and I don't think there is anybody, not even Peter, who would disagree that they have put up taxes, and the public certainly knows they have. And that's the simple point the poster makes is that here is an example of something which Blair and the new Labour Party said they wouldn't do and they have done.

PETER KELLNER: I think, I think one of the real problems for the Labour Party here, Tony Blair - you're right - our YouGov polls show the trust has declined very sharply in the last few months - and the problem is not, I think specifically about Iraq, because I think most people don't follow the minutia of who wrote what in which version of which dossier.

But it, but our, our YouGov poll find that people don't believe even the good things that have happened - waiting lists coming down, school standards going up, crime falling.

So that when a prime minister and a government aren't trusted, they're not trusted even when they tell the truth about the good things that are happening. And that's very dangerous for them.

PETER SISSONS: The Americans have a tremendous appetite, that they believe in negative campaigning, they don't think positive campaigning works.

You go out and you duff up your opposition using fair means and foul. But here, do you think we have less of an appetite for that, that you can sometimes go over the top?

One's thinking of the New Labour, new danger, poster that appeared at one stage.

TIM BELL: And look how true that turned out to be.

PETER SISSONS: But at the time there was a bit of public ...

PETER KELLNER: The problem about that one, it didn't work because people did not at that point perceive Tony Blair as the devil incarnate.

Labour isn't working was an effective ad because it reinforced what people thought about unemployment under the Callaghan government.

I think the Pinocchio ads might work in the short term because people don't trust Tony Blair and it therefore reinforces. I think negative campaigning works when it reinforces what the public already think. I don't think you can use it to change the public's mind.

PETER SISSONS: How damaging was it when Teresa May talked of the nasty party, and others, I think Oliver Letwin, musing aloud, as he tends to do, mused about the unlikelihood of a Tory win?

TIM BELL: Yes, but then the other day he said it was now likely. So, we've managed to convince him maybe we can convince the rest of the public.

I think the nasty party was most unfortunate and very damaging - obviously it was taken out of context but it was unfortunate because it appeared that we thought, we ourselves were nasty rather than just that the people who opposed do.

But I wanted to just come back to the point about, about the issue of how these things work. These, these things don't make the difference between winning and losing, what they do is they make, they reinforce the position that you are in. We're in mid term, we're not in an election situation, people aren't thinking about elections.

What's striking about the mid term is that the feel good factor, which is really the only poll that matters, is still very high and yet Labour has lost their lead and the Conservatives have gone slightly into the lead.

Now what will happen over the next two years is that the feel good factor will get worse as the government's excessive spending kicks in, taxes have to be increased and the result of that will be that the Labour Party will go even lower down the opinion polls.

PETER SISSONS: What have you - what have you promised IDS that you will do for him?

TIM BELL: I haven't promised him anything that I'd do for him. I'm simply working with his communications team to try and make sure that what ever it is they want to communicate we get across in the most informative and most persuasive way.

It has to be striking because political parties have very small funds so they have to do things in a very visible way that people will talk about - the famous little girl on the hill in the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, plucking the daisy, Labour isn't working - they are classically designed to have a much greater impact than the amount of money that was spent on them.

That's why you use a strong visual image like Pinocchio's nose, like we used the tax bombshell and so on.

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