One of the main problems plaguing the Labour Party recently has been opacity of message. To explain this year’s General Election defeat, many point to Ed Miliband’s incoherent, piecemeal manifesto – and to the infamous Edstone and ‘immigration controls’ mugs, tokens of a failed campaign. Both were, paradoxically, material objects designed to lend solidity to the messaging coming out of the Labour Party, but ended up only highlighting the muddled nature of said messaging.
Fast forward to the present, and Labour is still not providing clarity of message. By contrast, the Conservatives are a case study in consistency. Still profiting from the general sense of economic insecurity in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the Conservatives continue their pre-election practice of painting Labour as unwilling to face up to ‘economic reality’. Labour, they say, are ‘a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security’. The Conservative Party Conference slogan – ‘Security, Stability, Opportunity’ – supported this claim, while the Labour Party Conference slogan, ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’, was immediately open to ridicule and co-option by commentators, who contrasted it with the excesses of ultra-left-wing keyboard warriors on Twitter.
Recent international events have played straight into the Conservatives’ hands, vindicating their consistent focus on security. ISIS have been a threat for some time, and much legislation passing through the Commons – like the proposed British Bill of Rights and the Investigatory Powers Bill – are justified with recourse to the threats posed by extremism and terrorism. Theresa May, in public interviews, consistently speaks not only of ‘safety’, but of ‘safety and security’; ‘to keep UK citizens safe and secure’. The Conservatives would have us think we’ve reached a point where ‘safety’ is no longer sufficient, but needs to be synonymically reinforced with the addition of ‘security’.
In the aftermath of last week’s attacks in Paris, the Conservatives’ focus on security is paying off: the public will trust a party which has positioned itself as capable of protection more than one that is perceived as continually sending mixed messages. Part of the appeal of the Labour Party to its (increasing) membership is that it is a ‘broad church’ – that it prioritises consultation, debate, and intellectual flexibility over hard-and-fast stances that make for good sound bites or lend the illusion of infallible competence. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid has sought to play into this notion of broad discussion; particularly around policy issues like Trident, renationalisation, and the vote on Syria, which were announced as open to consultation. Corbyn and his team continually promised a policy-making process in which all members would be invited to voice their views.
The problem with this promise is that so far, we have only seen vague and meandering discussion, spread unevenly across the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and various media outlets, with very little apparent streamlining of communications from Labour HQ. Labour MP Simon Danczuk, true to form, has a weekly column in the Mail on Sunday in which he denounces the leadership in perplexing detail; while Corbyn himself has been unwilling on several occasions to provide interviews and comment to major influential news outlets and opinion shapers. While it is indisputable that the media landscape in the UK suffers from an anti-left-wing bias, Corbyn’s strategy of disengagement will do nothing to counteract this tendency.
Lack of internal communication has been a problem too: when General Houghton criticised Corbyn’s Trident stance on Andrew Marr, for example, shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle appeared to be in agreement with the General’s comments when interviewed immediately afterward. One can only assume that she had not been briefed with a more constructive response to the General’s overt breaching of the constitutional principle of neutrality. Similarly, when Ken Livingstone was appointed co-chair of Labour’s defence review this week, it appears that the other chair, Maria Eagle, only found out about this appointment on Twitter. If blunders like these cannot be avoided, perhaps they can at least be prevented from leaking to the media.
The fact that many of these communications blunders occurred on foreign policy, within the Conservative-dictated framework that our security is constantly imperilled, further aggravates the public perception that Labour does not know where it stands. The press have very openly been fanning the flames of disagreement within Labour – even though disagreement within a party does not necessarily equal division. So while the press like to portray the anti-Corbyn insurgency within the PLP as more significant than it actually is, week after week of reported splits between Corbyn’s team and the rest of the PLP have been doing consistent additional damage to a platform that has already not been projecting unity.
So how can Labour improve its communications in the next few weeks? In the wake of Miliband’s leadership, which is now being viewed even less favourably through a post-election lens, Labour is at risk of being perennially confined to the sidelines as a party of uncertainty, flip-flopping, u-turning, and general all-over-the-place-ness – so it’s crucial to better stage-manage Labour’s public perception as swiftly as possible.
To begin with, surely the way to remedy a perceived bias in the media landscape is to proactively send out the sort of messages that project a positive, appealing vision of the Labour Party for the electorate. Many of the frequent Labour Party mailings encourage members to become active locally and contribute to ongoing campaigns – and while this is doubtlessly important and needs to be reinforced occasionally, most people who have already signed up as members understand that politics is about campaigning. Instead, were Labour to send out advice on strategies for making Labour’s case to voters on the doorstep or in debates, for example – a sort of best practice guide –, or concretely advise on how to counter Conservative rhetoric, members would be better served than with just a generic call to arms.
Next, it would be useful to streamline Labour’s own communications in such a way that they at least offer the appearance of a coherent policy programme underlying them. Policy is by necessity constantly in flux, and events like the Paris attacks will emerge as watershed moments for competing policy currents. But it must still be possible to project an appearance of competence and self-assuredness: Conservative economic policy is highly disputed amongst world-leading economists, yet what moved the electorate to vote Conservative in the General Election was by and large their successful projection of economic expertise and security.
Avoiding unnecessary positioning on highly divisive policy issues is also essential. Today saw the announcement that Labour is preparing a backbench case for a vote in favour of military action in Syria – ahead of the government publishing their own plan for Syria. In the worst-case scenario, Labour’s backbench case is presented before the government’s; the government’s case turns out to have much the same content; the vote passes and the Conservatives gain political capital out of not even having to make this case for themselves. Labour would be accused of being irreparably divided again, and the nay-sayers would be accused of mindless blanket opposition. A better alternative on difficult policy issues is the collective holding of horses on Labour’s part – sometimes waiting and seeing, particularly without leaking every instance of disagreement to the press, may be the wiser choice. Corbyn’s pronouncement that he would never activate a nuclear deterrent was similarly premature; its bad timing actually detracted from the positive moral content of his message.
The final improvement lies within the control of the Party, and Corbyn’s team in particular: it won’t do to wait for the next General Election campaign to come up with a persuasive and innovative policy platform, which then provides the grounding for consistent messaging and consolidates a favourable public opinion of Labour. The last few months have seen Labour’s defeat result in one review upon another of how, why, and when specifically Labour failed. These reviews are very important. But at some point, review needs to turn into implementation – and this can only happen if members know what they’re campaigning for. It lies in the hands of Corbyn and his team to take a cue from all the talk about security and stability dominating the debate and define what Labour stands for.