Thursday, 30 April 2015

How to Launch a Manifesto

By Henrietta Ross

The stage is set, the audience is hand-picked and thoroughly screened, the leader’s backed by evocative imagery and armed with a set of policies committed to print. It’s the manifesto launch: the jewel in the crown of the seemingly infinite array of highly constructed presentations which have come to characterise much of this general election campaign.

This is an era in which our would-be leaders fight it out through the medium of the sound-bite and the staged photo-opportunity. We are increasingly encouraged, and perhaps willing, to base our political choices on images, overly simplified policy statements and the highly crafted or unwittingly captured characteristics of political leaders.

The manifesto launch is possibly the most stage-managed appearance in electioncampaign. With three basic components: a leader, a backdrop and a publication, it also offers a set of highly comparable events: a means to consider how each of the political parties have chosen to construct an identity in a context where presentation has apparently become paramount.

First, Labour and the Conservatives: worth considering side-by-side because it seems both have made good use of the standard-issue manifesto launch pack made up of the key customisable components for capturing the centre ground. 

The striking similarity of the slogans is driven home by the common choice of justified type. Variations in size and, for Labour, weight and case, enhance the shared emphasis on the ‘future’ theme. The typography says I have a vision, it’s bold, it’s direct, it’s a distinctive future – the individual appeal of which is arguably undermined by the fact that apparently so does the other guy, in a very similar way. Meanwhile the union flag is present in both backdrops, but given a starring role by the Conservatives.

Here distinction in the visual rhetoric can be discerned. Conservative supporters can identify the key elements as the nation: the unruly, full-colour union flag, to be led by Cameron and a handful of cabinet colleagues, who lean in on one and other on the manifesto cover: their backs to a dark, blurry outside world. For Labour the flag’s muted red symbolism might signify the state, which backs the people, who back the party, led by Miliband and the manifesto he hopes will become the basis of his mandate.

For the SNP and UKIP – with campaigns characterised by efforts to temper the impression of their radical roots and appeal to a broader spectrum of the electorate – justified type is again in evidence, but in a more moderate form. Both limit the text-block to two lines and the SNP break it up with the diminutuve ‘for’. The usually bold SNP yellow is also mellowed, making the stand-out impression the socialist red of Sturgeon’s suit: a not-so-subtle nod to the party whose traditional supporter-base the Scottish Nationalists have set their sights on.

Farage meanwhile introduces cursive type for the everyday man-of-the-people feel. The UKIP purple is muted and morphed into the blue of the union flag in the backdrop, which looks too small for the job at hand and is set in a low-ceiling, strangely shadowy room. If UKIP aim to overturn the impression that they represent a threatening fringe group lurking in the sidelines of the political spectrum, this presentation seems to fall wide of the mark.

For the Green party the full backdrop has been dispensed with, replaced by banners framed with natural light. Two politicians stand at utilitarian-looking podiums on wooden floorboards. The emphasis is on dialogue, openness and fresh thinking, with type set at an angle that’s different, but not radical. The manifesto cover showcases the range of issues, beyond saving the planet, the Green party are ready to grapple with. Slices of key policy areas stacked on top of the solid foundation of sustainable energy suggest a move towards the political mainstream anchored by their origins as the alternative vote which is, in Bristol and Brighton at least, becoming an increasingly viable one.

Clegg and the Liberal Democrats’ party political broadcast slogan urges voters to ‘Look left, look right, then cross’. Their manifesto launch was presumably intended to position them as the centrist alternative, but the effect is more ‘anything goes’. The brick-work, glow-stick lighting, exposed rigging and hand-printed panelling gives the impression that Clegg might have inadvertently stumbled onto the set of a Saturday morning children’s show. Meanwhile pressing the rhombus form into service as part of a brightly coloured bricolage of policy pledges looks unfortunately pick-and-mix: an unwelcome reminder for the party-faithful of the way key manifesto commitments were unceremoniously dropped by the party in coalition.

While Clegg may soon prove to have lost swathes of his core vote through his coalition compromises, it seems he’s found a friend, stylisticly at least, in Jim Murphy and the Scottish Labour Party. This time the plackards are off the walls and held aloft by an impressively thorough display of diversity. The type maybe ranged left, but those on that side of the political spectrum might struggle to identify any connection between this and the brooding bugundy of Milliband’s launch. Maybe if the data projection wasn’t being drowned out by the ambient lighting things would be a little clearer.

However, while any substantive connection with his colleagues south of the boarder seems to have been lost in Murphy’s presentation, it is perhaps the most engaging of the seven considered here. While the crowd behind him might appear a little hand-picked, they do, at least, look like they’re having a pretty good time. The combination of the line-up, the brightly lit hall, wooden flooring and coloured signs and t-shirts suceed in fostering a sence of inclusivity, enthusiasum and atmosphere. Murphy himself, despite the regulation suit and tie, seems casually charismatic.

And yet, polls predict that Muphy, by the end of this election campaign, is likely to have lost nearly half of the 42 per cent share of the Scottish vote his party’s held since 2010. Their seats could well be slashed from 41 to just one. Having arguably won on static images of manifesto launch events, Scottish Labour could be the biggest loosers in this campaign. Reassuring evidence perhaps that, while the media-focused activities of our politicians might suggest otherwise, presentation isn’t, to the electorate at least, everything.

Henrietta Ross works for Soapbox, a studio which specialises in design for policy, research and advocacy organisations.

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