Obituary: David Kingsley: One of the first spin doctors in UK politics, who advised Labour under Harold Wilson
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Harold Wilson made his dramatic first speech as Labour leader to his party's 1963 annual conference, offering a new vision of socialism and a Britain "forged in the white heat" of a scientific and technological revolution, his words were hailed as a portent of an exciting future for the country, whose voters rewarded him with his first election victory the following year. It was only much later that the role of David Kingsley emerged as, arguably, the first "moderniser" in British politics and the first "spin doctor", many years before the phrase had even been imported from the US.
Kingsley, who has died aged 84, was one of the "three wise men", as they became known, brought in to help Wilson in 1962; his particular expertise was in advertising. He, Peter Lovell Davis, a media-management expert, and Denis Lyons, from the world of public relations, formed a team of unpaid advisers to the leader, deliberately situated outside the party hierarchy. They were responsible for the campaign slogans "Let's go with Labour and we'll get things done" in 1964 and "You know Labour government works" in 1966. The optimism they helped convey on the party's behalf, which lay behind the "white heat" speech at Scarborough, offered an alternative to postwar austerity and would serve to end Labour's 13 years in parliamentary opposition.
After 1964, Kingsley was regarded as the most talented of the wise men, who visited the prime minister once a fortnight. Wilson himself had written a report in the 1950s on the need to modernise the "penny-farthing machine", as he described the Labour party organisation, and he was determined to use people such as Kingsley to introduce new ideas of presentation and promotion of the party. With Kingsley's help and advice, he also brought in regular opinion polling, using the services of Bob Worcester - later the founder of Mori - to look at the reasons behind the voting intentions of the electorate. This was an almost unknown science in British politics at the time and, in Kingsley's view, if it had been taken more seriously would have averted Labour's narrow and unexpected election defeat in 1970.
Reflecting on those times, Kingsley observed in an interview five years ago with the blogger Oliver Shah: "I had a feeling that politicians weren't very good at communicating with the people and the people found it very difficult to understand what the politicians were doing." Instead he proposed that politicians should use the latest marketing techniques to try to get through to people by using language rather than just headlines, and that they should explain their policies and principles.
In the event, the Labour 1970 election slogan "Yesterday's men", portraying the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, and his team as plastic puppets in the dustbin of history, misfired badly. It had been planned by Kingsley and his colleagues as the first half of a two-part campaign, and the follow-up was intended to convey the positive message "Make Britain great again". But Wilson unexpectedly brought forward the general election to June, apparently persuaded by his political adviser, Marcia Williams, and the negative nature of the "Yesterday's men" slogan rebounded to his disadvantage. A BBC television programme the following year, about how Wilson and his ministers were adjusting to life in opposition, caused an enormous kerfuffle when it was broadcast under the same title and suggested that the former prime minister had profiteered from the publication of his account of his time in government.
Kingsley was born in south London, the son of Walter and Margery. The family moved and he was educated at Southend high school for boys, before going to the London School of Economics to study economics. He did his national service with the RAF, returned to be president of the students' union at the LSE in 1952, and the following year became vice-president of the National Union of Students. He remained closely attached to the LSE throughout his life, as a governor for 40 years until 2006, an honorary fellow and chairman of the alumni association.
He had been adopted as the prospective Labour candidate for East Grinstead in 1952, but decided on a career in advertising, working in New York before returning to the UK and founding his own company, KMP, in 1964. With his business partners, Michael Manton and Brian Palmer, he created a groundbreaking agency that challenged some of the US giants.
But for the 1970 election defeat, he might have continued to work in politics. However, he found his status, outside both government and the party, highly frustrating. "Things go wrong in politics when people think they know it all, when they aren't actually closely in touch with what's going on around them or what people feel like," he observed to Shah in 2009.
His ideas were strongly opposed by traditionalists at Labour HQ, particularly the general secretary, Ron Hayward, and the head of the press operation, Percy Clark, who wanted nothing to do with his fancy modern ideas. He retreated from the conflict, but history has proved that he was greatly ahead of his time, as more recent practitioners of spin doctoring, notably Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, might readily grant.
Kingsley was not given a peerage, unlike his two colleagues, perhaps because he did not take the trouble to sweet-talk those in Wilson's office who arranged such matters. He continued to work in advertising and to offer advice to foreign governments, including those of Zambia and Mauritius. He was an adviser to the Social Democratic party from its formation in 1981 until 1987.
He was a man with an intellectual hinterland in art, music, books and travel, and he was married three times: to Enid Jones in 1954, with whom he had two daughters; to Gillian Leech in 1968, with whom he had two sons; and to Gisela Reichardt in 1988. He is survived by Gisela and his children.
David John Kingsley, management, marketing and communications consultant, born 10 July 1929; died 13 April 2014
Kingsley's marketing proposals were firmly opposed by party traditionalists
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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