Saturday, 3 April 2010

Purple Reign

As Labour and the Conservatives trade insults and policies in the grapple for the middle ground, Britain’s political hue is blending from red and blue into a suave shade of purple.
Traditional associations of red with socialism and blue with conservatism go back to the bonnets rouges of the French Revolution and True Blue English protestantism. The same spectrum of political allegiance now applies for most of Europe – the one big global anomaly being America where Democrats are associated with blue and Republicans with red.
Purple always held associations with imperial or holy power. The cost of the Tyrian dye made in Lebanon meant the colour was only available to the elite.

But purple entered the political mainstream in the 1980s when it became synonymous with the Dutch Purple (or ‘Paars’) Government, a coalition of the red social-democratic Labour Party and blue right-wing liberals the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The Purple Government was based on the innovative Polder Model of consensus policy, a ‘third way’ acclaimed and later borrowed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

So when Tony Blair pitched New Labour at the middle ground during the 1997 election campaign the backgrounds used for speeches and party political broadcasts predictably faded to purple.

Over the last decade, Labour’s political palette has swung between rabble-rousing red and appeasing purple in response to the government’s fortunes.

In 1998 John Prescott balked at the background of his Party Conference speech saying "Purple? The imperial colour of Philip of Macedonia. I can't have that, can I? Change it!"
Since then the annual Labour Party Conferences have been conducted in front of a smouldering twilight gradient that shifts between lilac, violet and cabaret red depending on the speaker, illuminating Labour’s message with a powerpoint-like purple haze.

Brown re-branded Labour’s red rose in mauve when he took over from Blair in 2007 – then backtracked to a more traditional red following opposition from party faithfuls.

For Alistair Darling’s 2010 Budget Labour’s front bench turned out in uniform purple – perhaps a conscientious effort to avoid an ‘In the Red’ headline.

The Conservatives were slower to catch on to the game of stealthy graphical expansionism. In 2006 they claimed the eco-ground with a re-design of their logo as a scribbled green tree, keeping the blue but making it less banker more blue-sky-thinking.

Since then the Tories green streak has extended to David Cameron’s ties. But recently Cameron too has started to adopt purple as an attempt to woo floating voters.

A survey of recent ties shows Cameron stays towards the violet end of the spectrum – though he’s not afraid to venture into a lustrous mauve. Nick Clegg tends to lean towards lilac. Whereas Brown’s neck-ties are more variegated, ranging from lavender to magenta.

The purple reign of UK politics is the target of the Liberal Democrats’ new marketing campaign launched on the eve of April Fools’ Day. Marketing agency Iris has beautifully undercut the one-upmanship of Labour and the Tories by inventing a satirical campaign for the Labservatives, a bogus party which recasts the big two as a single flawed hegemony.

The graphics are a bastardised blend of Labour red and Tory blue, with fuzzy bland sans serif statements promising ‘more of the same’. Lines like ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’ are cleverly cloaked digs that echo Pim Fortuyn’s Puinhopen Van Acht Jaar Paars (The Ruins of Eight Purple Years), the explosive book that effectively demolished the Dutch Purple Government when Fortuyn used it as the agenda for his political campaign in 2002. 

But there is a danger that the subtlety of the Labservative message will be lost on the majority of voters. The obliqueness of the campaign inadvertently reinforces the Lib Dems’ position at the fringe of the mainstream. By continuing to concentrate on the weaknesses of the big two rather than their own strengths, they may be condemning themselves to obscurity.

Fortuyn was assassinated 9 days before the Dutch General Elections, but went on to be posthumously elected to the House of Representatives.
In the absence of a bright alternative of any colour, perhaps Britain will end up voting in a purple advertising campaign.

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