One of the most successful three word slogans in recent-ish political history– the Thatcher Opposition’s Labour Isn’t Working – almost didn’t get seen by the client.
Tim Bell, once one of the UK’s most successful PR people until his career ended in scandal, claimed to have created Labour Isn’t Working for Maggie Thatcher for the campaign against Jim Callaghan’s Labor Government.
Bell allowed it to be known that he came up with it for Thatcher. He also claimed he was the ampersand in Saatchi & Saatchi, the Tory ad agency, as well as a sort of unofficial third Saatchi brother. Needless to say the brothers disagreed – presumably colourfully in the case of Maurice Saatchi.
Over all the years he never admitted that it was not only someone else’s, but that he had also rejected it and didn’t want it shown to the client.
Andrew Rutherford – later of Something, Something Rutherford and Scott – corrected this after Bell’s obituary in The Times repeated the false self-promoting claim.
It appears Rutherford came up with the slogan and had it put on a presentation board along with four others for Thatcher’s consideration.
The story was that Bell was preparing to pitch and wanted to take only four – rejecting Rutherford’s.
Bell then left the portfolio on the table when he took a short break. Cynics who are less than Bell admirers suggest it was to brush his hair or some other purpose – possibly sating his 80 a day cigarette habit. It gave Rutherford the opportunity to slip the board into the bag.
Thatcher was apparently initially cool about the slogan because of her reservation that Labour’s name was bigger on the poster (no campaign TV ads in the UK mainly posters) but then embraced it enthusiastically.
It turned out to be brilliantly successful capturing the problems facing the Callaghan minority government which was beset in 1978-79 by industrial disputes and widespread strikes in what became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’.
Combined with rising unemployment, which the poster captured in an illustration of long lines of the unemployed, and the defeat of a Scottish devolution referendum, made Callaghan’s government deeply unpopular and it lost power after a successful no-confidence motion in the Commons.
Bell remained close to Thatcher during her term in office, calling in for late-night drinks and being seconded to the National Coal Board to advise on presentation during the miners’ strike. The Andrew Carnegie style gruff Scottish-American Coal Board Chair, Sir Ian McGregor, was less tolerant of sycophancy and Bell had little success with him.
Bell Pottinger, the company he had founded and run for 28 years, was closed down in 2017 having been found to have breached ethical principles after an independent inquiry into its business dealings in South Africa. He was also expelled from the UK’s PR organisation. Bell died in 2019.
Bell Pottinger became well-known for its willingness to represent unsavoury charters, regimes and clients they justified on the cab for hire principle.
A Guardian obituary (26 August 2019) said that among its clients were the Pinochet regime, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian dictator, the Sultan of Brunei and the Sri Lankan government during its war with the Tamils.
Other clients included: “Tory minister David Mellor during his extramarital affair, the businessman Ernest Saunders, convicted of manipulating Guinness shares during a takeover battle, Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, Rebekah Wade, the Murdoch executive during the phone hacking scandal, and Neil Hamilton in his battle with The Guardian over the cash for questions scandal.”
“The agency lobbied on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government during the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into bribery allegations over the Al Yamamah arms deal, an inquiry that was subsequently dropped.”
The agency did apparently decline to act for Robert Mugabe, but only because he didn’t take their advice.
Bell Pottinger’s collapse was precipitated by its South African subsidiary which ran a campaign for the controversial Indian Gupta brothers, who had business ties to the country’s regime.
“The campaign, with its racist attack on ‘white monopoly capital’ opponents, outraged other agency clients……. The crisis deepened when Bell was shown to have sat in on the discussions about taking on the business, sending an enthusiastic email back to London predicting a lucrative deal,” The Guardian said.
As clients deserted Bell Pottinger Bell ditched his colleagues and claimed that he had actually opposed the deal – despite the evidence.
In a bid to manage the crisis he appeared on TV defending himself but with the constant sound of his mobile phone going off during the interview. Hardly what one would expect of a supposed PR guru and his company folded very soon after.
Giving a further flavour of the quality of Bell advice a friend and former colleague recounted a conversation with Bell about Brexit. Bell insisted that Brexit would triumph because young people were anti-Europe.
“I mentioned that young people were all for it and gradually the old buffers would die off and leave the young to help develop the greatest international project ever. He said young people were anti- Europe. I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.”
But then that’s the sort of advice which nets you millions of pounds and even led to Bell bring knighted on the recommendation of Thatcher. He was subsequently appointed to the House of Lords by Tony Blair – someone else who is also no slouch at representing unsavoury regimes.