Making Labour’s communications professional again might not be top of new leader Keir Starmer’s to-do list this week – but if it isn’t near the top, we’re in trouble. You cannot win elections on good PR alone, but you can’t win without it either.
It’s especially urgent this time. Starmer says we have a mountain to climb, which is an understatement. December’s defeat was on such an epic scale – the worst since 1935 – that it would normally require at least two parliaments to overturn it.
It was far worse even than Michael Foot’s defeat in 1983, when I worked in Labour’s press office. We faced a popular and competent opponent who had just won a war in the Falklands. Even so, Margaret Thatcher did not beat us anything like as soundly as the least popular and least trusted Prime Minister of my lifetime managed to beat us last year.
In 1983, Labour had lost the communications professionalism of the Harold Wilson years, and had yet to acquire the smoothness of the Tony Blair years. But the best communications in the world could not have saved us. History was against us.
In 2019, a decent communications strategy – before and during the election – could have averted huge defeat. It was the PR that did it, and that’s why, this time, it could be turned round in one parliament. Here is what Starmer must do.
1. Be himself.
Starmer is worried about his ‘boring’ image, and his team is assiduously putting it about that he’s hilarious in private. I heard a toe-curling interview where Piers Morgan accused him of being boring, and Starmer defensively started to list occasions on which he had made jokes.
Labour’s most successful leader was Clem Attlee, and he was widely thought to be boring – but trustworthy. It is often said that Attlee could never survive today, but this is not true. Images are not a recent invention. Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, Winston Churchill – they all had an image, and so did Attlee. A wise man, he ensured that his image was close to the reality: terse, pipe-smoking, cricket-loving, a bit like a suburban bank manager.
Ed Miliband, on the other hand, tried to shed his ‘geek’ image when he should have owned it. People will forgive geeky, but they can’t stand geek dressed up as cool. Neil Kinnock was told that he had to look and sound grave and prime ministerial – so he shed the jollity, passion, laughter and loud suits that made him attractive and wrapped himself in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. Starmer should be what he is, and behave in ways in which he is comfortable behaving. It might well have saved Kinnock in 1992 and Miliband in 2015.
2. Find someone to handle the leader’s media relations who understands, and preferably works in, popular journalism and who – crucially – has no ambition to be a politician or a political theorist.
Labour’s most successful leaders did this. Blair brought in Alastair Campbell from The Daily Mirror; Joe Haines came from The Mirror to work for Wilson, succeeding Trevor Lloyd-Hughes from the Liverpool Daily Post; and Attlee’s choice was Francis Williams from the Daily Herald.
On the other hand, Kinnock appointed Patricia Hewitt to handle his communications – a clever woman, but a lawyer with political ambitions. Peter Mandelson, a researcher with fierce political ambitions, ran the communications department at Labour HQ. Jeremy Corbyn appointed Seumas Milne, a Guardian journalist who remained essentially the political ideologue who once ran Straight Left.
3. Remember that the leader of the opposition does not get to dictate the agenda.
It is written by the government, the media, and above all – as Harold Macmillan put it – “events, dear boy, events”. You cannot fight it, so embrace it. Corbyn’s tenure illustrated this with dreadful clarity. His team’s agenda did not include Brexit, so Corbyn sounded unprepared, cross and grudging every time he was forced to mention it. Once the election came, they spent the whole campaign period telling the electorate ‘look at this pretty thing, it’s much more fun than boring old Brexit’. Nobody listened.
Their agenda did not include antisemitism, either. I believe Corbyn was unfairly treated on this, but it was his own fault. At his only meeting with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Corbyn said almost nothing, and Milne harangued the Board about Israel, which he accused of ethnic cleansing. Journalists who asked about the issue got nothing more than a telling off from Milne for writing about it. This helps explain why more than a quarter of the respondents in a survey by the Glasgow Media Group believed that a third of Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism. The real figure was far less than 1%.
4. Labour does have friends in the media. Use them.
Corbyn snubbed almost all of these friends, talking only to the most ideologically pure. LBC’s James O’Brien – a clear left-wing voice – was among many who kept bidding in vain for an interview and was unable to get any sense out of Corbyn’s office. Perhaps because he is a Remainer. I was another. Robert Peston was refused an interview with Corbyn because Milne objected to the tone of one of Peston’s reports. Time and time again, I saw or heard about a sympathetic, or potentially sympathetic, writer unable to get even a steer from Corbyn’s office – let alone a word with the man himself.
5. If you help your friends in the media, you have less to fear from the right-wing press, which will attack Labour’s leader whatever he does.
Starmer will get it worse than Corbyn because the Murdoch press will not have forgotten that, as director of public prosecutions between 2008 and 2013, he paved the way for prosecutions against Rebekah Brooks and others at News International for phone hacking. They have not forgotten or forgiven.
You cannot change that, but you don’t have to be a victim all the time. It isn’t true that there’s nothing to be done about it. A good media operator can affect it at the margins and make it a shred less damaging. Anyway, newspapers matter much less than they used to. The big newspaper proprietors no longer have the power to deliver an election.
In 1992, the press went to war against Kinnock, and The Sun afterwards gloated: “It’s the Sun wot won it”. In those days, most people had no other way of getting news. They could not say that today.
6. You need people to know who you really are, to counter who your enemies say you are.
Put yourself about. Engage with the media. Encourage profiles. Make sure there’s at least one good biography by a respected left-leaning writer.
7. Your team must trust you to perform, and be seen to trust you.
Kinnock’s minders always seemed to think their man would blow it if he was let out alone, and so did Corbyn’s. If that’s what your team thinks, they will not be able to hide it from journalists.
8. Election slogans really matter, and you can’t decide them by committee.
Committees come up with big, airy, meaningless slogans like Labour’s in 1983 that, in case you have forgotten – as I certainly would have done if I hadn’t been there – was “think positive, act positive, vote Labour”. Last year’s wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it was pretty bad: “It’s time for real change.”
These slogans tell you nothing, which is why politicians like them, and why devising a slogan is a job for communications professionals – not politicians. “Get Brexit done” was clear and specific. The campaign slogan, relentlessly promoted from day one, must be short, sharp, and clear. It should state something specific that Labour pledges itself to do, and should contain no abstract nouns or adjectives at all.
9. When an election is called, the work – for good or ill – has been done.
The task then is not to drop the ball. You can’t pull a win out of the bag with a stunt, but you can throw away a win. The Sheffield rally in 1992 – a great, pompous, extravagant event a week before polling day – was credited by pollster Bob Worcester for losing Labour the 1992 election. The ‘EdStone’ may have lost us the 2015 one, and the sudden last-minute gimmick of offering universal free broadband contributed to last December’s defeat.
10. The Prime Minister is Mr Johnson, not Boris.
But Starmer knows that.
Labour’s communications amateurishness has gifted Johnson five years in government. Let’s not gift him another five years.