The 1990’s heralded a new dawn in Britain, a country which was recovering from Thatcherism and intent embracing a new world of Premier League football, Brit Pop and, of course, New Labour (though not necessarily in that order of importance).
New Labour had effectively captured the mood of the nation and at the heart of it were people like Philip Gould, Peter Mandleson and Alastair Campbell who had modernised the public face of the Labour Party and revolutionised political communications in this country. This was arguably one of New Labour’s legacies, so much so that quality PR became almost synonymous with that era of the Party.
Under Ed Miliband there were efforts to move on from New Labour. This was the right thing to do; it was 18 years since Tony Blair had walked into Downing Street and we needed a new offer. There was perhaps an element of tiredness, jaded from three General Election victories but also three draining defeats in 1987, 1992 and 2010. Talent that had propelled the Labour Party out of obscurity towards a landslide victory in 1997 had either stagnated or moved on. A tubthumping ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ styled campaign was not possible, not least because Britain was in a very different place socially, economically and politically.
However, as we strove to redesign the front of house, the back room operations drastically altered too. Mistakes dripped into the 2015 campaign at a time when we needed to be pitch perfect. We had to redecorate; fresh wallpaper, a lick of paint, maybe some new furniture but we were mistaken in taking out the foundations as well.
A primary example was the ‘Edstone’ moment. True, it did not change the direction of the election but it served to reaffirm the Tory’s ‘incompetence’ line of attack, especially when combined with other gaffes. The ‘if Alastair Campbell was around it would never have happened’ hindsight is lazy and obvious but it is also true.
Messaging was also inconsistent with each year’s Conference themes being quietly dropped or replaced. Whatever happened to One Nation Labour? The Conservative line ‘long-term economic plan’ was mind-numbingly dull (not to mention a total fallacy) but after being repeated around 9,638,254 times it produced the intended result.
Additionally, not only did we fail to produce any consistent messaging ourselves, we also failed to rebut Tory lines of attack. Lines on the SNP, Ed Miliband/incompetence and the economy were consistently repeated, first sowing the seeds of doubt, then reinforcing them. We never really got to grips with any of them and this ultimately cost us at the ballot box.
Compare this to the modern day Conservatives. During the Election mistakes were kept to a premium and, on the occasions when they were made, efforts were focused on limiting their impact. Lynton Crosby’s messaging was rigidly adhered to and it was Ministers like Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith who bore the brunt of criticism rather than David Cameron and George Osborne, a stark contrast to the attacks which Miliband was the sole recipient of.
Take the debates, or rather lack of them, as an example. Was the fact that Cameron refused to debate Ed Miliband one on one at the forefront of the electorate’s mind on the 7th May? No, of course not. However, had he done so, the potential risk of undermining one of the Tories key prongs of attack would of been too great for negligible gain. Short-term pain maybe, but with the long game in mind.
The Conservatives identified their weaknesses and nullified them whilst at the same time highlighting and exaggerating Labour’s. They have become exceptionally good at avoidance tactics, burying information and have even started taking Labour policies and weaving them as their own. Osborne’s ‘Living Wage’ is an a consummate exercise of smoke and mirrors and we can do little but protest from the sidelines.
It’s not particularly clever politics, never mind inspiring or pleasant. Damage limitation, evaluating and mitigating risk and implementing conservative political strategies is something more akin to the corporate world but this is deliberate rather than accidental. Ultimately, it has also been proven to be successful.
This not a call to mirror Conservative tactics, nor am I advocating a complete rerun of the 1997 General Election campaign strategy for 2020, not least because it wouldn’t work. But like any good business we must look at best practice in the industry, learn from our competition, avoid repeating our mistakes and build on our successes.
However, despite our experiences over the past five years, with two successive General Election defeats, we seem to have learnt nothing and are making the same mistakes all over again. I agree that in many respects Jeremy Corbyn has had a rough deal from the press with reams of superficial and hyperbolic stories where he is often damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. We thought the coverage would be pretty vitriolic and this prediction has so far been proven true. This is why it is doubly frustrating that we continue to score PR own goals on a near weekly basis. Little red books, Ken Livingstone…we can blame the ‘right-wing press’ as much as we like but if we write our own ‘kick me!’ sign and stick it on our own back we can’t be entirely surprised when they do.
There is a hope that, even without favourable coverage, Jeremy Corbyn’s principles and good nature will prevail, with social media acting as a bridge to people and cutting out the media middle man. We thought the same thing with Miliband. We thought that people would rally around him after the attacks on his father, would tire of comparisons with Wallace and Gromit, would see the same decent, genuine man as we saw. This belief was perhaps reinforced by social media, buoyed at the thought that the once great power of the traditional press had diminished. The problem was that people didn’t. And the media hadn’t. Social media is a wonderful tool on many levels but Facebook and Twitter is not an accurate poll of the nation.
Good communications is not and should not be the preserve of New Labour, banished into memory and forgotten. Consistent, good messaging does not have to equate to ‘spin’ carried out by Malcolm Tucker and even within a democratic, grassroots party, there is room for individual talent to direct, advise and lead. Often it is those from outside the party machines that can offer the greatest contributions and we must be open to that idea (that does not mean to say we should hire a part-time American consultant on a six-figure salary).
Until we operate more objectively, embracing the benefits of an effective public relations strategy, we can never hope to form an effective opposition, never mind run a successful Election campaign in 2020.