Tuesday 1 June 2010

The PR pathway to the very top

Hands up everyone who felt that “a new dawn has broken, has it not?” after last month’s general election. Were you not seduced by the promise of a youthful, innovative coalition, drawn from a squeaky clean new House of Commons, purged of expenses fiddlers by popular anger?

Those of us of a right-wing disposition looked forward to being able to buy the Daily Telegraph again, without being bored rigid by daily accounts of some unknown MP’s furniture purchases and the fact that he shockingly had the stuff delivered to his constituency home, where someone was in to sign for it, rather than an empty Westminster flat.

And what do we find? The news is so much like Groundhog Day that I keep thinking of that badge I used to see during the elections of the 1970s: “If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it.”

Although it attracted little comment at the time, I was struck during my long and pointless post-election vigil by the number of MPs returned with comfortable majorities despite having been at the very heart of the expenses scandal. For some reason the name of Hazel Blears springs immediately to mind.

Perhaps Liberal Democrats escaped closer scrutiny because they were drawn from a joke party seen to stand no chance of actually taking office. But now the Treasury has become a sort of shooting gallery, with David Laws already despatched because of his undeclared partner, and Danny Alexander in the firing line because of his alleged avoidance of capital gains tax.

If this ploy works, the process will presumably continue until the supply of Liberal Democrat candidates is exhausted, and Mr Cameron is forced to appoint a Conservative who shares the Telegraph’s prejudice against raising capital gains tax. Which would be ironic, to say the least. It would also be likely to precipitate the break-up of the coalition, but maybe that is the true objective.

The other argument being advanced against Mr Alexander is that he knows nothing about economics, and his previous biggest responsibility was as head of communications for the Cairngorms National Park.

Can this really be a valid objection when the Prime Minister’s only job outside politics was a seven year stint as director of corporate affairs (or chief spin doctor) for the ITV company Carlton Communications, in the course of which he acquired something of a reputation among financial journalists for not always telling the whole truth?

Nick Clegg, too, is a former lobbyist, which is the badge PR men like to wear when they are operating in the field of “public affairs”.

Far from being a new dawn, casting aside the black arts of spin employed by the likes of Lord Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, the election of 2010 marks the very apotheosis of PR.

According to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (of which I am not a member) there are now more than 48,000 people employed in PR in the UK and “the rate of growth in the number of jobs in PR at all levels has been higher than that of any management function over the last fifteen years”.

So that’s where we have been going wrong. Maybe the promised referendum on PR should address public relations rather than proportional representation.

There are currently 262 university courses in PR on offer in the UK, including such dazzling combinations as PR and dance at the University of Sunderland and PR with sports massage and exercise therapies at the University of Derby. Mind you, the latter also offers PR combined with culinary arts, which would have been just about the perfect grounding for my City career, assuming that it includes a decent wine-tasting module.

I wonder if there is any chance of signing up for a PhD to take my mind off our current political and economic morass?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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