It was the ad that rocketed Margaret Thatcher to power and ushered in Britain’s first female and longest-continuous serving prime minister on three back-to-back victories and 18 years of Tory rule — with three, stinging words.
Labour Isn’t Working wasn’t just a political provocation. It remains the single most significant piece of political communication in British history. It was also an exposition of Thatcherism — that is, minimal government and maximum personal responsibility — designed to level up, to generate prosperity, which in turn could help the disadvantaged. As Margaret Thatcher summed up, “the facts of life do inevitably turn out to be Tory.”
Ironically, Thatcher proved smarter at recognizing the poster’s impact than the legendary Saatchi brothers. Charles Saatchi — the reclusive creative force of the agency — had rejected Labour Isn’t Working. But it was re-inserted into the final presentation by Andrew Rutherford — the anonymous copywriter who authored it. Thatcher is said to have called it “wonderful” the moment she held it — suggesting she had a better instinct for political communication than those hired to provide it.
The media sensation provoked by Labour Isn’t Working — which showed a long, snaking dole queue leading up to an unemployment office — thrashed Callaghan’s government forcing him to postpone the general election which only further aggravated his authority which had already been shredded by a series of labour strikes known collectively as the ‘winter of discontent’ — a Shakespearian reference to post-war Britain that was in the maw of national decline, throttled by socialism, and left to rot as the sick man of Europe.
Unlike their American counterparts, British political parties had never hired agencies to run campaigns which were developed pro bono by supporters. Thatcher, however, was persuaded that a trend-setting, creative agency could make all the difference. She was right, of course. But there are as many myths as there are truths about the precise role of the Saatchis. After all, they were credited with changing everything from her voice to her every move in their role as her closest advisors.
While their campaigns are the stuff of legend, the truth is that Charles Saatchi had never met Thatcher having even declined to attend her celebrations at No.10 when she was voted into power. To this day, they have never shaken hands.
The public image of Thatcher was largely managed by Gordon Reece, a mediaman she appointed as her Director of Publicity in February 1978. In fact, it was one of his first decisions to appoint Saatchi & Saatchi Garland Compton as the party’s advertising agency. Moreover, it was his idea to present Thatcher doing the washing-up, shopping for groceries, fussing over prices, and to be seen as a working housewife.
Reece ‘softened’ Thatcher. He hired a National Theatre coach to train her to lower and deepen her voice, advised her on clothing, accompanied her to interviews, and steered her from belligerent interviewers who could make her sound or appear strident. Till her very last day, she was pitch-perfect — not a hair out of place — and a persona cast from hot iron. Thatcher agrees: On the unveiling of her statue at the Houses of Parliament, she quipped, “I might have preferred iron; but bronze will do.”
In his tribute, Prime Minister David Cameron called Thatcher, “… the least conservative Conservative.” For, politics aside, she had a full sense of the theatre of herself. She challenged consensus, fostered destructive dialogue for constructive ends, all the while fully conscious of her womanhood — holding her Cabinet in one hand and a cuppa in the other.
While millions view her as a force to be defined against, Maurice Saatchi (now Lord Saatchi, Chairman of the Conservative Party) explained Thatcher’s winning formula best — a secret that those of us who work in branding and advertising already know: “(She) understood that if you stand for something, you will have people for you and people against you. But if you stand for nothing, you will have nobody for you and nobody against you.
As a conviction politician, Margaret Thatcher took her stand and proved that when you do stand resolutely for something you believe in, history follows.