- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
The news of Simon Baker’s passing came as a shock to all of us in Tribune.
In preparation for our forthcoming issue we interviewed Simon about his latest project Labour Voices, which had already made a deep impact on the movement. During the discussion Simon told us his inspiring story — how he became active in the Labour Party, what moved him to make his landmark party political broadcasts, and how he felt his work contributed to a broader movement for change.
We reproduce that interview here.
The first few Labour Voices videos have been great. What’s your plan for the series? How many do you intend to produce?
I don’t know, really. It was one of those things where you have an idea but you’re not really sure where it’s going to go. I had been thinking for a while about doing something like this. The last PPB [party political broadcast] I did for Labour was on the NHS, and you had people talking to camera. In that video we tried to use ordinary language to give voice to the problems ordinary people face — and I thought, there’s a lot of merit to that approach.
So, this was an idea I had floating about. Then I saw a Facebook post by Guy Matthews, which had gone semi-viral. It was basically what he said in the film. I saw that and read the post and thought, ‘that is exactly the kind of thing we should be doing.’ I went to film it and, initially, I was going to do it as an EL4C video — but then I thought, it would be nice to have something that felt like it was its own identity.
That video’s orientation is pretty clear, to give working class people a voice in describing why politics matters to them, to say why they support the Labour Party, to push back against caricature of working class communities. Is that the theme you see running with Labour Voices?
That’s certainly the intent with the first couple we’ve made. It is evolving its direction. But the thing that resonated about what Guy wrote is the need to tackle some of the myths about the working class, the need to reconnect the Labour story a little more to its origins. To me, it’s kind of a travesty that Labour is struggling to communicate in the very communities it was made to represent.
I was trying to create a counter-balance to the myth of the London, the Islington bubble that is peddled. One thing I noticed when I did the Labour PPBs and travelled the country is how much of a myth it is that the party represents a metropolitan elite. When you see people working in their communities in so many places, in every corner of the country, people who really know their communities and care about them, you’ve got to try to find a way to capture that and put it out to a wider audience.
I agree with you on that, the Labour Party has deep roots with endure actually moreso often in communities a long way from the caricature created by the right-wing press. But do you think the party’s message, that its policies would improve the lives of working people across the country, is breaking through? Do you think it’s too focused on the metropolitan part of its base?
It probably is struggling to break through — but I don’t know how much that is the fault of the party and how much it is a reality of the environment we’re in at the moment, where the messaging of the Right is simplified and amplified by the press. A lot of people are, sadly, quite swayed by those narratives.
You’ve got this big organisation, the Labour Party, that is going through its own trials and tribulations. It’s difficult to have a strong, coherent and strategic communications direction in those circumstances. And it’s easy to criticise it. They are great in so many ways, in what they are doing. So, what I did with this — instead of bemoaning what the party are and aren’t doing — I just thought ‘well, I’ll get out there and do it.’
I do have my contacts, now, with people in the leadership office. Part of me was trying to prove to them how resonant messages like that can be.
Obviously from the responses online to your videos so far, it’s clear that they are resonant. There seems to be a reaction from Labour members, the party grassroots, saying ‘it’s about time we did this.’ A lot of people seem to feel in their gut that the narrative they are sold about the party in the media is not true — and resented that. But until now they didn’t have a way of expressing that…
Yeah, it’s been crazy. I’m the only person running the social media account, so I get all the notifications coming through. It’s been really interesting the number of people who have responded in that way. And I’m not surprised by it, to be honest. It’s one of those things you know in your gut.
I’ve been doing social media for a little while now and you kind of know in your gut if it’s going to reach people. There are some things you just know are on the tip of people’s tongues and they just want to see it articulated. And if they see it articulated well, they want to share it. I think what people liked in Guy’s original post was that it feels a bit like fighting talk, and I think in the current situation we need that.
That’s something I think activists appreciate. Particularly in the Labour Party because when we’re in a campaign and firing on all cylinders, it’s great. But in the interim periods we’re on the defensive a lot. We often don’t have the opportunity to talk about the fundamental things we care about. So I think the emotion of that video, the conviction of it, was a good thing from a grassroots perspective. The fire in the belly.
You’ve recently released your second Labour Voices video, featuring Michelle Dorrell. In it, she criticises the way in which the media persuade working class people to vote against their interests and back things like austerity. In fact, criticism of the media is a theme of both of these videos. Do you see the role of viral video content on social media as going around the media? Reaching people directly? Or how do you see the existing mainstream media as a structure? Is it something to work your way through, or go around?
It’s a bit of both, really. I’m wary of being too conspiratorial about the press. I knew that would be a risk in how people would interpret this video. That’s why I said the press, specifically, as opposed to the media. Although we all have our criticisms of BBC, Sky, Channel 4 and so on, it’s not on the same level as the print press, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express.
I do think social media virality has a huge role to play in circumnavigating the bloc of the existing media. But one thing I’ve noticed about Twitter, as opposed to Facebook, is that there’s an opportunity to influence what some of the media figures are focusing on. A lot of journalists use Twitter!
One example I often use is from the 2017 general election. After the London Bridge attack Peter Kirkham [former Senior Investigating Officer with the Met Police] was being interviewed and he spoke really powerfully about police cuts. He basically accused Amber Rudd of lying about police numbers. I clipped that on EL4C and it went viral, I think it ended up about 10 million views. The next day, Theresa May had a press conference and all the questions were about police cuts. I don’t think that happens without social media virality — because it was just all over social media that Sunday.
You don’t really know who you’re reaching when you post on social media. But on certain platforms like Twitter, if you get enough people to coalesce around an issue, you can influence the media. So it’s not just about circumnavigating.
For me, that raises the question of where you sit in all of this. On the one hand, you’re doing Labour Voices and the EL4C work on Twitter, where you’re using social media. On the other, you’ve done these really acclaimed party political broadcasts (PPBs), which clearly makes you more involved with the party. And you have a career before this, making professional quality videos for major organisations from Rolls Royce to The FA. How did this journey happen?
EL4C was a creation of me being a local activist. I was desperate to use whatever tools I had to support the movement. So, I started making little videos in my spare time and these became relatively popular in that online world.
What happened then is, I suppose it’s no secret that there are informal lines of communication from the leadership to the grassroots. There are groupings of like-minded activists, some of which have ways to communicate with the top of the party. Labour has been very good at realising that there’s a movement out there that’s worth engaging with. When you’re someone like us, who is putting out these videos that are doing almost as well online as the official party videos, I think it’s right that Labour should reach out. And I basically got a private message to say ‘would you be interested in doing a PPB?’ And, of course, I jumped at it.
I’d like to think that the person who asked me knew about me! And had done some research! I think they realised that I was actually qualified to do it. And it all kind of worked out. It was something I had been desperate to do for ages, to be honest. I had done well in my day job…
When I went looking into your background, I was surprised by the scale of that! You have done videos for some major organisations. I think when someone pops up with viral videos on social media, I just assume that they’re neophytes. I should have known by the quality of yours. You’ve been doing this for some time, right?
It must have been have been a shock for the party’s communication people to realise that. ‘We’ve got this account doing these videos, and they look suspiciously good…’ What was that transition to you? How did you go from doing videos to being an activist?
It was quick but it was a long time coming. I had been politically interested for a long time. But my major area of interest was foreign policy and foreign affairs. I had always voted Labour and been a Labour supporter, but I wasn’t really active. I wasn’t even a member. I joined Labour just after the 2015 defeat. I think a lot of people have a similar story. I had been telling people to vote for them for a long time, but I hadn’t really been involved. Then I thought I need to do something a bit more tangible.
When I first joined, they had only started the leadership contest. Even though I knew of and respected Jeremy Corbyn, I didn’t really consider that he would be a serious contender. When it turned out he was a contender I was really intoxicated by this idea of someone as leader who saw international issues in the same way I did. I thought that was such an incredible opportunity.
And so I voted for him, like a lot of people, but then straight away you’re into this internal world of the Labour Party. I hadn’t been privy to it before that. The first year or two was very difficult. There was already a group pre-existing here in Ealing called Ealing Labour for Corbyn, I became aware of it during the second leadership contest. I got a baptism then into the local scene which was very polarised. Quite nasty, at times.
Having joined that group, I said to the guys who started it ‘we should start up a social media account and do memes or whatever.’ It was reading Alex Nunns’ book [The Candidate], actually, that inspired me. I read about Red Labour and a few other things that had happened during the first campaign. That felt to me like it was a good way to get active — particularly given I’m not the best person on the doors! It’s not one of my talents. This felt like a good way for me to utilise whatever talents I had.
It’s a long way from ‘let’s make a few memes’ to a party political broadcast, isn’t it?
It’s a bit of a parable of Corbynism, that. It’s a story that probably resonates with a lot of members. People got involved to support this movement then all-of-a-sudden they’re running for elections, they’re becoming councillors, they’re ending up as Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs). In your case it started with a Twitter account and ended with videos that got, what, millions of views?
Yes, that range alright. The first one really resonated. It was interesting how much response it received generally. For a good two or three days afterwards people were talking about it, even on quite mainstream political programmes.
I spent a lot of time working in a variety of projects. Some of them were human projects, focusing on emotions and the best way to communicate a story. But I’ve also spent a lot of time in a dryer, more corporate messaging. I think I should, after twenty years of doing it, have a certain talent for it.
Directing can be a lot of things. It can be just swanning onto a set and directing a storyboard, and doing the nuts and bolts. But for me it’s a lot to do with creative the development, the messaging, finding out what a particular client wants and how to articulate that in an effective way.
When it came to doing my work for the Labour Party, it was great. I wasn’t some advertising executive who has a brief but is struggling to understand the organisation I’m doing the messaging for. I totally, I think, understood what Labour was saying, what it should be saying.
And I understood what the activists were saying too. You don’t want to just speak to the bubble, but it’s important to understand what your base is saying. So, listening to the sway of conversations out there, and combining that with what Labour wanted to say, and how I feel… It was the perfect combination. It really worked.
How did you come up with the idea for the ‘Our Town’ PPB?
Obviously, part of that was creative intent, having an idea of what you think a Labour video should be. But, if we’re honest, I think creative output is also a product of your environment and of concrete circumstances. Take, for instance, the PPB — I was contacted at quite a short turnaround for that. The first message was in July and they wanted it by the end of September.
I thought the previous PPBs, which were more ‘talking head’ based, were outstanding, the one about the NHS, the one about crime, the one about the housing crisis. They were really emotive and well done. I remember my first thought, when I was asked to do one, is ‘are we going to have to come up with something that matches that standard?’ My concern was that there wouldn’t be time. There wasn’t time to find the right people to make the contributions.
I suggested quite early on that this video should have a similar feel to the previous ones, that it should capture real people, that it would have a tone of voice that was accessible, but that it would be scripted and voiced over so that we could be clearer with the message. For me, the initial thing was capturing the humanity and the emotion of the previous PPBs but to craft the message a little bit more, so that we knew where we were going with it.
In terms of the focus on held-back communities, and on towns, that was what Labour indicated they wanted to do.
Going forward, for the Labour Voices project, do you have an idea of where you want to go next?
Yes, I do. I have to admit that it is slightly evolving. It’s gaining a momentum of its own. If I’d spoken to you a few days ago, I might have said it was just about capturing what people wanted to say. But, after seeing the reaction to the first two, I think it has more of a responsibility to challenge a lot of misconceptions about Labour activists.
For example, I would like it to bring forward the diversity of voices that are represented in the party, not just in regional terms but in others too. I want to give more of the grassroots a chance to push back against preconceived notions. Realistically, if I can make two of these a month that’s going to be pretty good going. I want the quality to remain high. I want people to feel every time a Labour Voices video comes out that it’s really worth watching.
One job, it seems to me, your videos are doing is to try to put together again some sort of collective identity for working class people. The idea of class has been so bastardised by the press, and the idea of working class has been bastardised by the professional class in particular. Do you ever think that’s something you try to do?
Absolutely. I’m not a student of politics, or of some of the more advanced ideas of class politics. So, for me, when I talk about the ‘working class,’ I’m talking about the people society doesn’t work for at the moment. I think that’s a huge group and it’s growing all the time as the things that we rely on are shrinking and disappearing. The rise in the cost of living, the stagnation of wages, the cuts in public services — these are impacting so many people.
The people responsible for all this want to distract from the realities by pointing out an ‘Other,’ someone over there who is to blame, creating a kind of division. What we were trying to do — in a frank, not touchy-feely way — is to say we should be uniting to fight for our interests.
It was quite interesting, with the first video, how many people focused on his Fred Perry t-shirt. People were basically saying, ‘working class people shouldn’t be able to afford nice things.’ I think that speaks to the level we’re at in discussing class now. Guy spoke in the video about struggling to pay bills, about money being tight. He didn’t say he was a pauper. Many people struggle. They might occasionally buy themselves nice things, but that doesn’t mean they don’t stay awake at night worrying about how to pay the bills, what would happen if they get ill. For me, it’s not about fetishising poverty — it’s about saying these are struggles we all deal with day-to-day so we need to unite to do something about it.