Too nice for politics or just what it needs? Who is Labour’s new comms chief?

Ask people who have worked with Ben Nunn – the Labour Party’s new director of communications – and they describe him as “a genuinely nice guy”, “kind”, and “striving to do good”.

Ben Nunn is a nice guy, but is that a strength or a weakness in modern British politics?
Ben Nunn is a nice guy, but is that a strength or a weakness in modern British politics?

Can it really be true? Has the comms chief of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition eschewed the ‘bruiser’, ‘bully’ and ‘Machiavelli’ stereotypes of some of his predecessors in favour of a thoughtful, calm and collegiate approach to the job?

And when one considers the chicanery practiced by his opposite number in Downing Street – before he called a temporary truce with the media – is this, well, wise?

Labour leadership campaign

Keir Starmer (credit: Getty Images)
Keir Starmer (credit: Getty Images)

Any concerns that ‘nice guys finish last’ are, of course, dispelled by two facts.

Nunn helped his boss, Keir Starmer, win the Labour leadership race with a convincing share of the vote – more than double that of his nearest rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

In so doing, he also secured for himself the most senior comms job in the Labour Party, while still in his early 30s.

Not bad for a nice guy.

So how did the campaign he ran on behalf of the new Leader of the Opposition beat those of Long-Bailey and the third contender in the race, Lisa Nandy?

Martha Dalton, co-founder of corporate comms and public affairs agency Lodestone, who was seconded to lead media work for Nandy’s campaign, points to a methodical approach.

Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy

She tells PRWeek: “Keir’s campaign was data-led, incredibly smart and played to his strengths. To run a campaign like that you need great communications. Ben led a team which delivered a compelling narrative of unity and played to a base of supporters who were tired of losing but didn’t want to lose their heart.”

Nunn also played to that other great strength in effective communications: hitting voters’ emotional buttons, says Dalton.

“We all know that a good comms campaign has to bring emotion, values and a sense of purpose. The Keir campaign had this in spades, and Ben should be very proud of what’s been achieved so far.”

Personal political values

Nunn lives in Camden with his wife Florence Wilkinson – co-founder of birdsong-recognition app Warblr – a dog called Fox and a cat called Bee.

Whether or not his personality is suited to the gruelling task of building a new comms strategy for the party is yet to be tested, but his centre-left politics are not only in step with those of his boss, but also with a swathe of Labour voters, dismayed by the calamitous defeat of the December general election in which the party lost nearly 60 seats.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the moderate Nunn will fail to reach out to angry supporters of Jeremy Corbyn fearing a lurch to the right.

Jeremy Corbyn (pic credit Getty Images)
Jeremy Corbyn (pic credit Getty Images)

Friends describe Nunn as a pragmatist who has proved his ability to work with all wings of the party.

Perhaps his agreeable persona and ability to charm is, in fact, his secret weapon?

This has been vital during the past three years, working as Starmer’s personal spokesman, as his boss attempted to steer the leadership towards a more pro-Europe, anti-Brexit policy.

A former Labour staffer, who has worked with Nunn, says: “Ben is one of the genuinely nice guys around politics. In a complicated and factional environment, he was very good at working with Jeremy's team to get to good workable solutions, especially on Brexit. He has good relationships across politics.”

It is a mark of how widely those good relationships span that even former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson’s campaign chief took to Twitter this week to commend Nunn’s appointment.

Politics and healthcare

Despite his background in healthcare comms, Nunn's longstanding desire to be involved in politics is clear from his studies in political science at university and his early career choices, first as an intern for the campaigning children’s charity Barnado’s and then as a parliamentary researcher for Labour MP Barbara Follett.

MHP Communications was his first taste of agency life and healthcare comms.

The former chief executive of MHP, Gavin Devine, says that although he was still junior, Nunn was already making a name for himself.

“He was a very well regarded, measured, calm and sensible guy," Devine says. "He seemed kind and intelligent – all the things you hope would exist in politics, but which seldom do. It’s tremendous to have someone like that [as Labour’s comms director] because it’s often been missing.”

During his time at MHP, Nunn worked with the charity Catch22 on a campaign that looked at how the public health system was dealing with gangs and youth violence.

His direct boss at the time was Rachel Rowson (below), now head of health innovation at the agency, who recalls “a very talented communicator and a thoroughly nice guy”.

Rachel Rowson
Rachel Rowson

She continues: “He consistently showed that he understood the detail of public policy and could translate this into persuasive communications. He was creative, resilient and strove to do good through his work in the healthcare sector.”

In a demonstration of his political ambitions, Nunn stood as the Labour candidate for the Swiss Cottage ward of Camden Council in 2014, but was unsuccessful.

His earlier career in healthcare has not gone down well with detractors on the left of the party, some of whom took to social media on Monday to decry the appointment of a “lobbyist” as Labour’s new comms chief.

But Devine dismisses these criticisms as “ludicrous”, calling the attacks “a ridiculous caricature”.

Political ascendency

Nunn continued his career in healthcare in a more senior position at Incisive Health, but the lure of politics proved powerful and he went on to work for then-shadow health secretary – and fellow moderate – Heidi Alexander, working on health comms as well as policy.

In what was perhaps an indication of his frustration with the direction of Labour at the time, Nunn gave comms support to the failed bid by Owen Smith MP to challenge Corbyn for the leadership of the party in 2016.

Despite the fact that his candidate lost, Nunn doubtless built up valuable experience of running the political comms behind a party leadership campaign.

After another stint at Incisive, in a more senior role, Nunn left the agency again to join Starmer, the then-shadow Brexit secretary, as a political adviser on his team.

A comms professional for a comms job

It has been refreshing for comms professionals to see one of their own catapulted into a role that, for both Labour and the Conservatives, has traditionally been the preserve of a succession of grizzled, veteran journalists.

Dalton (pictured) agrees that being good at both politics and comms is an advantage, because it lends that person the edge to know what a well-structured campaign looks like.

Martha Dalton
Martha Dalton

She says: “Politics moves much faster than communications, so a grounding in both means you can bring a professionalism and structure that can be applied to the ultra-fast-paced, sometimes messy, world of politics. It allows you to rise above the noise and be more strategic.”

The road ahead

The Labour Party suffered a crushing defeat in December for a host of reasons, not least of which was its failure to put forward a cohesive and convincing campaign.

Under Starmer’s leadership, the party must not only reset its policy direction in multiple areas, it must also present itself to the public as a credible opposition and a government-in-waiting.

Nunn and his fellow comms professionals in Labour will have to show extraordinary resilience as they attempt to reclaim the voice of the party and create sound political arguments that convince existing supporters as well as the wider public.

But how should the opposition conduct itself during a global pandemic that has affected every strata of public life, with no end in sight?

Carl Shoben (pictured), who was director of strategy for Labour before joining polling firm Survation earlier this month, says Starmer and his team have already made some sound choices, including keeping Jon Ashworth in his role as Shadow Secretary of State for Health.

Carl Shoben
Carl Shoben

He says: “There will be a temptation to suspend politics to an extent during this crisis, but I'd strongly advise that the political questions around this are crucial and a strong Labour presence is vital to make sure the economic and social fallouts from this are dealt with fairly… the outbreak has shone a particular light on the wider inequalities in Britain.”

The advice seems to be landing on fertile ground.

Starmer’s first address as leader was to promise that “We will be a responsible opposition that supports the Government where we believe they are right and challenge them when we believe mistakes are being made.”

This morning, Starmer pushed further, calling on the government to publish its exit strategy on coronavirus.

If these two addresses were co-created by Nunn, he should be pleased, because Labour appears to have struck the correct tone.

Nunn’s immediate future as Labour’s comms director will not be easy. There are serious challenges ahead but there are also glimmers of hope and opportunity – because, once the immediate crisis is over, questions about how the NHS and other public institutions are to be funded in the future are those which Labour will be well-placed to answer.

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