Since December 12’s devastating result there has been a debate on who should lead the Labour Party. We have heard various forms of analysis about what went wrong. We have heard some policy, we’ve been told who is and isn’t electable, and it seems the politics of personality are alive and well.
What we haven’t heard a lot about is communications strategy. When I look at the four leadership candidates I am absolutely convinced that none of them will be elected to lead the country without completely overhauling Labour’s approach to communications, engagement and the media.
Neither a business-as-usual approach nor a return to cosying up to the mainstream media will beat the Tories’ Trump-like media operation. When looking at the likes of Cummings and Bannon the Left have spent our time (rightly) attacking their motives, politics and character. But what we fail to do though is recognise how effective they are.
If Boris Johnson or Trump walked into a pub or met my mates at football, within five minutes people would be asking them to leave (politely, of course). They are the establishment personified. A billionaire businessman and an Etonian. But backed by a ruthless strategy they have been painted as men of the people – and it has worked.
What Labour now needs to do is recognise that the game has changed. We need to build an approach that embraces new media, social media, and a robust and professional strategy to deal with the traditional press. No more messing about in the Twitter bubble. It’s time to dominate Facebook, re-engage with our communities, talk like the people we seek to represent and reinsert ourselves as the voice of the working-class.
When our union wrote to all leadership candidates I was very interested in what they would say on communications. We have now released all the replies to the public – and you can read them here. But the reality was that only one person’s responses stood out: Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Lisa Nandy has shown herself to be an effective media operator but her key suggestion on challenging the Tories was reinvigorating local media. “There’s one area of media innovation in particular which really excites me because I believe it holds the key to doing what we so desperately need to do, which is to empower people so they can take more ownership and control over their daily lives. That’s local media.”
I am a massive supporter of local media, but I’m worried by that answer. Local media can play a role in reporting important community issues – but will it really challenge the Tories’ media operation? As well as local media being in a free fall at the moment, with titles closing and readership declining, there’s also the reality that more than 80% of local media outlets are owned by just six major media conglomerates. That is exactly the same problem of media ownership that makes the landscape so hostile for us elsewhere.
The latest report from the Media Reform Trust shows a staggering amount of concentrated ownership in our media. More than 60 percent of the newspapers people read every day are owned by just two corporations: Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and the Daily Mail Group, both of which are relentlessly anti-Labour. Things aren’t much more diverse in television, radio or online.
Keir Starmer promised a “professional modern media operation” and “dynamic and engaging social media strategy” – but provided no detail. Starmer also said he “welcomed the growth and diversity of new media covering politics” and committed to “making sure that our media strategy extends to ensuring we take this seriously.” But again, there was no explanation of what this would mean.
Starmer’s flip-flopping on working with The S*n (telling a hustings in Liverpool he wouldn’t and the very same evening telling the Fabian Society meeting to “wait and see what happens after the election”) gives me zero confidence that he either grasps the issue or even wants to change.
By contrast, Rebecca Long-Bailey went into detail on new media, social media and handling the traditional press. This is exactly what we need. She promised to “observe the trends across the media landscape and have an analysis of which platforms are most likely to have significant engagement and influence people in four years’ time,” while also committing to “creating shareable, viral content and having” through a new “dedicated creative digital communications unit within the party.”
“Labour is set up to fight an election in 2005,” Long-Bailey wrote, “when journalists had a 5pm deadline and the challenge was to influence the news bulletins at 6 and 10pm. We have not yet caught up with the changes brought about by social and rolling news media, and our use of Facebook advertising is currently wasteful and must be optimised.
“The party has to look at this from first principles: who are the people we need to convince, where do they get their information, where are they likely to get it in 2024, how do we optimise our reach on those channels and build resilient digital communities that can amplify a persuasive message.”
It was also great to see Long-Bailey say clearly that she would not give interviews to the S*n. We don’t need to cosy up to Murdoch – we need to build a machine that can match the Right head on. Her commitment to new media outlets was made clear by her decision to launch in Tribune last month, but she knows we need to go beyond this as well.
We need more persuasive content like we are seeing in the Bernie Sanders campaign, we need more innovation, more live broadcasts, more personality and above all else we must be brave and edgy in all forms of communications.
In the CWU we have totally transformed how we engage with our members. This has delivered inspirational campaigns, record national strike ballot results and a membership that is more engaged than ever. This shows working people are ready to get behind a return to the ‘power of we’ over the ‘power of I.’
Labour can win the next election – but only if we deliver the most exciting and bold communications strategy the UK has ever seen. Rebecca Long-Bailey is the only candidate who seems to recognise this.