Labour, Brexit and the youth vote are public affairs game-changers

Brexit negotiations, combined with an unstable and diminished government, mean that it's now 'game on' for public affairs professionals, says Joey Jones.

An election that was supposed to entrench Conservative dominance has instead thrown Theresa May’s best-laid plans into a tailspin, leaving many of our public-affairs clients wondering which way to turn. 

The reality is that, although the result was unanticipated, many of the underlying dynamics will not have come as a surprise to practitioners: the British people do not like being taken for granted; they expect a political campaign to be based on consistent, strong messages; and they want a potential Prime Minister to lead from the front and not shy away from debate.

If the election has gone some way to laying to rest the old canard about ‘apathy’ among young people, we in public affairs will feel so much the better. We have always known that young people find much about Westminster party politics uninspiring, but that should not be allowed to obscure their eagerness to engage at a grass-roots, social-media-driven activist level. 

In public affairs, we must be ready to explain and tap into this dynamic for companies that previously felt young people’s political views were no concern of theirs. And we will have to guide businesses that are contemplating and considering what a Labour government might mean for them. A salutary lesson for Conservatives was that Labour won support for arguments that many Tories felt had been settled for good long ago: nationalisation, high corporate taxation and borrowing-a-gogo.

Ruefully, the Chancellor acknowledged in his Mansion House speech the need to make the case anew for a market economy. Businesses that share his confidence in the virtues of free markets and outward-looking trade should recognise that he will not be able to make this case alone. In effect, ministers are hoping business will offer support and ballast, and for those that rally to that cry, public-affairs professionals can shape their arguments and warn of potential elephant traps. 

It is important to remember that big business, the City and the ‘citizens of nowhere’ are unpopular for a reason – alienation from the establishment has its roots in the financial crash and before. 

Even now, the ability of businesses to demonstrate that they should be prized as good corporate citizens rests on acknowledging past failings as well as demonstrating good intentions for the future. It also means being straight with people. 

When it comes to the nature of Brexit – hard, soft, whatever – politicians need to be clear about the implications of the course they are advocating. The Treasury, loosed of the bonds imposed by a previously all-powerful Number 10, is relishing the opportunity to drive a more business-friendly Brexit. 

But, as yet, there is little sign that soft Brexiteers are talking about the trade-offs that their position requires, in particular the inevitable ongoing mass migration that voters were categorically opposed to in the EU referendum. Supporters of soft Brexit need to be careful. If voters get a whiff of an establishment stitch-up, their verdict will be severe.

Joey Jones is head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick, London, and former deputy political editor at Sky News

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