Alex Hilton: Labour must boost press office to win

Increasingly, ministers report that civil servants are either withholding their best ideas or engineering delaying tactics in anticipation of an incoming Conservative government.

Alex Hilton
Alex Hilton

The cogs of government are getting harder to turn and this is as true in the press offices as in any other part of Whitehall.

The techniques for obfuscation and delay include constant requests for unnecessary details and tiffs over departmental budget headers or perceived 'politicisation'. A ministerial request that should take half an hour to fulfil might take as long as two months.

In terms of the press function, this is disastrous and creates space for an accelerating domination of the news agenda by the Conservatives.

The solution is simple. Labour needs to bulk out its HQ press office the way it did from 1995-97. Labour's head of media is highly regarded but has a team of only two or three staff and is buffeted by the whims of Number 10 and the senior cabinet ministers.

This team needs to be 15-20 people and to effectively co-ordinate government communications. Ministers must know Labour has the resources to get messages out quick and hard. In the face of intransigent departmental press officers, Labour HQ must become a teat of easy news suckled by political journalists.

As a Labour media operation gets into its stride, civil servants will start hedging their bets about a Conservative victory and become more responsive, just in case Labour squeezes in again.

The hurdles to this strategy are special advisers in departments and Downing Street, who will be reluctant to relinquish primacy. But these can be overcome with the recognition that Gordon Brown no longer has anything to lose. To afford this resource, Labour must audit its staff and calculate how many votes their jobs are worth. Those at the bottom end of the scale should be redeployed to the media team and supported by interns, volunteers and whoever else they can find.

But there is no more time for messing around. If the Government and party HQ won't take the necessary steps to win an election, why should the activists?

- Alex Hilton is a Labour parliamentary candidate and founder of political blogs Labourhome and Recess Monkey.

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