Doctor Spin

The phoney war is over and now the real phoney war begins. The party machines and their counterparts in the media have been stocking their bottom drawers with all manner of material, just waiting for Blair to fire the starting gun. And now the poster sites that were booked out months ago can be filled, the leaks started and the message spun.

This election, unlike the last one, lacks a central dividing line. The last election spun around the sleaze of the Tories and the promise of the New. This time round, the parties face the challenge of creating clear water between each other without any clear issue to hang it on.

The first week after Blair's school assembly was mired in messages about tax and public spending. This is fine if Evan Davis' Newsnight powerpoints are your thing, but hardly an issue that dissects the political discourse in the way disarmament, privatisation or sleaze once did.

The teams of professional communicators that will spend the next three weeks fighting for, and accounting for, minutes on Today, column inches in the Daily Mail and photomontages in The Sun, face the difficult task of establishing a clear difference around which a message can be built. Unsurprisingly, personality soon becomes an attractive alternative.

So unsure are they, that they even banned Rory Bremner from the “Battle Bus”, claiming he would just be there to gather material for his show – unlike every other hack on the media sharabang. When Blair's personality (sic) is your not-so-secret weapon and paranoia your position, the communicators gather around like so many FBI men with their fingers in their ears.

It is easy to laugh at such a lack of sense of humour, or even to try and argue that Bremner's coverage would have served to build Blair as a statesman worthy of satire. But the key thing is that the narrowness of the discourse narrows down the communication and stifles any chance at creating difference and relationships with the consumer – the key aim of marketing.

And the legal business isn't far from falling into this trap. Let's face it, the big firms all practise law stupendously well, incredibly efficiently and, give or take, at pretty much the same cost. London – sorry, the UK – prides itself on the best legal business in the world, but what is there to distinguish one top firm from another in the eyes of the consumer?

Size of practice doesn't cut it, profits per partner certainly doesn't. Location? Hardly. Even global reach is becoming increasingly uniform. What we have is a legal business that operates in a narrow middle ground and depends on loyalty, tradition or conservatism as a means of distinguishing who to vote for.

Clearly, this is in no firm's interest, promoting as it does complacency and even lack of ambition. But when firms refuse to take a brave step to establish a clear difference, they risk remaining mired in the middle ground.

The main parties fear to break the hegemony and stand up as different, preferring instead to control communication and devalue marketing to the level of PR. As such, they lose the relationship with the voters and their message loses any sense of reality.

Firms' messages are vital to their market positions. If they cannot develop a leadership position where communication within and outside the firm is enabled and encouraged rather than feared and controlled, they too will feel the waves of cynicism – an attack far more dangerous than the anti-globalisation protestors.