Nothing short of a revolution in Labour party communications is needed. When compared to other political parties, both here and abroad, when compared to campaign groups and NGOs, when compared to corporate, Labour is lacking and lagging. In so many ways, from better motivating and equipping members to fight elections, to generating much needed funds, improved communication will be key – so there will be a return on investment in this area.
The new communications director needs to start by considering better projection of the Labour Party brand. ‘Brand’ is dirty word for many, and is probably regarded with particular suspicion by people on the left who associate with the ‘evils’ of big business. But as comms specialists know, brand is not about pushing logos and slogans, it is not red roses over red flags, it is about communicating values. The best corporates – think John Lewis – are brilliant at this. Essentially, John Lewis sells stuff, but its brand communication is such that its staff and customers have a strong sense they are part of a shared enterprise that does real good. Other corporates, that are less ethical, are also able to communicate a sense of values, even if those values are more or less made up. The Labour Party is an infinitely stronger position, given its history, its achievements and its people, to project its brand
Part of this process will involve a clearer sense of what the communications function within the Labour Party is for. When a group of comms experts convened by Labour values, the Fabians and Labour List to discuss this issue there was general agreement that this had to combine both communicating to the membership (useful information, helpful tips, updates on the party etc) and communicating among the membership (providing a place where successes can be shared, discussions had etc). In other words, some of the communication is top down, some of it bottom up – or at least peer to peer. This is part of a wider cultural change that the party needs to embrace in which it is more prepared to be discursive and relational, and less directed and transactional.
The party’s use of digital media needs a complete overhaul – and arguing for investment in this area should be a top priority for the incoming Executive Director for Communications. In everything from the use of video, Twitter, email messaging and texting to supporter ID – Labour is behind the curve.There are lessons even from inside the party which can be learnt – from aspects of the Ken campaign to elements of the various leadership campaigns in 2010.Labour should learning from – or to be frank about, stealing ideas from – organisations like Avaaz, 38 degrees and the DNC.
As well as sharpening up the use of new media, the incoming director needs to play a key role in sharpening up more traditional aspects of communicating – message development, message discipline, press office functions. Important here is ensuring that the leader’s office, the shadow cabinet, the PLP and Victoria Street are joined up and working from the same grid and hymn sheet. While at the local level, there are arguments for the communications within the party to be more discursive and dialogic, at the top a return to the more controlled, disciplined and, yes, ruthless approach of the 1990s is needed.
The guiding principle here may well be ‘less is more’ – at the moment shadow cabinet members are splurging out press releases consisting of quotes responding to all and sundry – someone needs to get a grip on the main messages that the public associate with Labour. These need to be efficiently crafted, tested for their effectiveness, and relentlessly and consistently used. There are examples where it would be clear to members what the ‘party line’ in issues is – for instance, on the NHS bill. But there are not enough of these.
Not the least of the challenges will be bending the communications function of the party to both make being a member a more fulfilling and empowering experience and to help the party become a more efficient electoral fighting machine. These may appear to be pulling in opposite directions – and yet well done there is no reason why they should. A party that talks to itself openly, honestly and respectfully can be become stronger and more cohesive – and thus better prepared to get out their and fight when the time comes.