PR is no panacea for Labour's policy flaws

Labour insiders have defended the party's comms operation after its messaging came under fire from its own front bench.

Under fire: Miliband was criticised for focusing on set speeches
Under fire: Miliband was criticised for focusing on set speeches

The party's media operation has been subject to sustained criticism after the public crumbling of an initiative on foreign workers by immigration minister Chris Bryant.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has also called for the party to 'shout louder' and 'speak in a way that captures how people are feeling'.

However, a senior Labour source defended the party's performance over the recess, pointing to work highlighting how average workers will lose £6,600 in real terms during David Cameron's premiership and holding the Government to account for the damage it has done to the NHS and especially the 111 NHS helpline.

The source said the leadership's focus was on the big issues, adding: 'The party that wins the next election will be the one that sets out the answers to the big questions Britain faces, not the one that takes part in silly stunts.'

Party sympathisers in the public affairs community expressed support for the party's comms operation headed by Bob Roberts, arguing the problem has been a lack of clear policy direction rather than the tone of its comms.

'Too often it's easy to blame the comms team, but I think it's a problem of substance,' said Edelman MD of public affairs Chris Rumfitt.

Labour MPs urgently need to know which direction to face on policy issues, particularly how to secure economic growth, albeit the leadership is right to wait to produce detailed policies, he added.

One industry practitioner and Labour member criticised Ed Miliband for focusing on set piece speeches at the end of the summer while the party was being totally 'wrong-footed by the Tories owning silly season'.

The same source said the recent misjudged campaign against zero hours contracts, which was followed by revelations they are also used by Labour councils, evidenced a lack of bigger picture consideration at the top level.

The party is currently recruiting a deputy director of comms to 'bring in the discipline and co-ordination that Labour had in government' (PRWeek, 26 July). However, one public affairs agency figure advised: 'While that role is vital, they need someone like Lynton Crosby, with a bit of distance from the party, who can take a step away from the detail and tell it like it is.'

Conservatives trump Labour on social media front

Labour is losing the social media battle with the Tories despite research belying accusations the shadow cabinet has gone quiet during the summer months.

A comparison of Twitter activity by 16 leading shadow ministers and their coalition counterparts since the start of the parliamentary recess shows much more volume on the Labour side.

The number of tweets from shadow ministers was 510, compared with 101 from the coalition. Only eight out of 16 government ministers had Twitter profiles, while all 16 shadows are signed up.

However, the Tories and their supporters are using the medium to tie up Labour's strong communicators, claims Weber Shandwick chairman of corporate, financial and public affairs Jon McLeod. 'Chuka Umunna and Chris Bryant are pursued remorselessly on Twitter by the Conservative Campaign HQ and Guido Fawkes,' he said. 'Guido always focuses on Labour's best communicators and makes great stories and issues about them.

'Labour could be a lot more attack-minded on Twitter. It did have Left Foot Forward, but Will Straw moved on. The party lacks a digital plank and it needs to be fixed before it's too late. I'm sure the comms operation is working on it.'

HOW I SEE IT

George Pascoe-Watson, Partner, Portland Communications

Labour's problem is lack of resource. Bob Roberts is doing a good job, but he can't do it alone. He needs street fighters who can physically be in the lobby talking to political hacks. Labour also needs to do much more with digital comms.

Nick Laitner, Acting head of public affairs, MHP

While this feels like a process story, it demonstrates a much wider issue that Labour faces. Your comms can only be as good as your overall strategy and direction, and these have to be clearly set from the top. Without strong leadership, you will never own the agenda.

KEY FIGURES

40% Proportion of public backing Tories for economic competence in August**

28% Proportion of public backing Tories for economic competence in June**

510 Number of tweets during recess by 16 counterpart shadow ministers*

101 Number of tweets during recess by 16 coalition cabinet ministers*

Source: *Twitter;**ICM polling for The Guardian.

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