Paul Richards: 'Time is running out to save Labour brand'.

Part of this week's settlement, which almost certainly guarantees Gordon Brown's continuing leadership of the Labour Party, is his promise to reform Downing Street's communications.

Paul Richards
Paul Richards

We’ve been here before, of course. Team Brown arrived in September 2007 on a promise of ‘no more spin’. This was to be ‘organic politics’ – free from nasty additives, chemicals and pesticides. Avoidable errors, such as the now-famous incident when the autocue completely obscured Brown’s face during a speech being broadcast live to the nation, were said to be evidence of the new, unvarnished approach. On communications, Team Brown’s approach was to seek definition against what had gone before. What had gone before was Blair’s era of media manipulation, and the dark arts of spin doctoring. The new spin was there was no spin.
The issue – soon realised by Team Brown – was that Tony Blair didn’t invent spin doctoring, nor was it a matter of choice for Governments. Effective communications is an essential component of a successful governing project. And notwithstanding the dramatic growth of direct, unmediated forms of communications, most people still get their news and information about politics from the media. You need an effective media relations operation at Number Ten, and across Whitehall. In came Stephen Carter, David Muir, Nick Stace and others to bring professionalism and strategic vision into the political centre. A new communications war room was established. But in months the new arrivals became departures, with only Muir remaining as Number Ten’s trusted psephologist and pollster. And then revelation came that Damian McBride, a former civil servant, had considered part of his senior role at Number Ten was to make up lies about politician’s wives, and all hell broke loose.
It is telling that Number Ten’s media operation formed part of the rationale for some of the Ministers who committed political hari-kari in the past few days. Environment minister Jane Kennedy, who cut her teeth fighting the hard men of Militant in Liverpool in the 1980s, complained of a smear operation emanating from Downing Street, and handed in her cards. Alistair Darling was said by some to be the subject of dark mutterings about his future role. Other ministers complained about briefings, leaks, and diary stories appearing about their performances and prospects.
So what should the revamp of Labour communications comprise?
First, Labour Ministers and MPs have the right to hold Gordon Brown to his word: no more smears, no more hatchet jobs, no more stories placed in the Mail and the Telegraph which do members of Labour’s team down. As we near the election, fire must be directed at the Tories, and their policies. It may be a hard habit to break, but it must be broken.
Second, Labour must end its obsession with ‘pol corrs’ – the political correspondents who comprise the last great closed shop, the Lobby. These journalists are a very important part of the system. They are experts in their field, and often have been around longer at Westminster than the Ministers they are writing about. But it is an error to confuse ‘the Lobby’ with ‘the media.’ As any company comms director will tell you, media relations is about reaching your target audience with your key messages. It is not about obsessing about what the trade mags are saying about you. If Waitrose only worried what The Grocer’s editorial said about their brand, they would be soon out of business. Yet Cabinet Ministers spend a disproportionate amount of effort focused on what Polly Toynbee has to say, and spent less time than they should on regional titles, ethnic media, women’s magazines, local radio phone-ins, daytime TV, and the specialist titles which form the highlight of millions of people’s weeks. Labour needs more ministers on Talk Sport, and fewer on Today.
Third, the flow of stories has to shift to what Labour is actually doing in real communities (what we call ‘delivery stories’) as opposed to ‘process’ stories. At a time when NHS waiting lists are tumbling, new school buildings are opening, and there’s more police on the streets, there’s no shortage of positive things to say. The public can’t digest a major speech, nor has time to read a weighty document. But they know when there’s a new classroom or A&E, or when they see a new community support officer on their estate. It is Labour’s great tragedy that these practical improvements to people’s lives, which would be sorely missed should they be cut, are not associated in the public’s minds with the Labour Party. People do not make the equation between the votes they cast for Labour candidates in 1997, 2001, and 2005, and the improvements to their public services. This is meat and drink for local newspapers and radio, but unless there is a media-savvy local Labour MP, these trusted local media outlets are ignored.
None of the above is easy. Nor does it come as news to the hard-working communications staff at Number Ten. Most of them know what needs to be done. For a complex set of reasons, from the Iraq War, to expense-gate, from McBride’s emails to the failure to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Labour’s brand is in real danger of contamination. Like Sisyphus cursed to roll the rock up the hill, only to see it tumble down again, the comms team at Number Ten struggle to present a positive face, only to see some external factor push a custard pie in it.
Is it too late? Not necessarily. As a party worker at Labour’s HQ in the 1992 General Election, I was on the wrong end of a Governing Party pulling off an unexpected election victory in the face of a glitzy Opposition campaign. With the kind of changes that Gordon Brown promised his MPs this week – brave new policies, a new tone, a new engagement with party members – then Brown can play Major to Cameron’s Kinnock. But no one can doubt that time is running out. 
Paul Richards is a former special adviser, and author of Be Your Own Spin Doctor.

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