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Monday, 16 September 2013

Framing the media debate: 'the mess Labour left' (1/2)

He still divides opinion but Alistair Campbell, former Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street, is worth listening to right now on the issue of Labour Party comms strategy.

This interviewin the Independent is a good example. Ostensibly the piece is about his efforts to raise awareness about alcoholism, but in it he also criticises the Labour Party’s failure to rebut coalition ‘lies’ about the economy. He makes a similar point in an interview with Decca Aikenhead here and in his own blog here, and here.

Labour’s poor comms record in this parliament started when they lost the 2010 election. As the coalition whipped up a faux national economic emergency, the Labour Party went to ground. Rather than rebutting the coalition's framing of the ongoing financial crisis as ‘a mess left by Labour’ they retreated, opting for a long drawn-out debate about which Miliband brother should lead it. Regardless of how important it was to elect a new leader, it was a massive tactical error not to vigorously contest the way the economy was framed. Although it might have been excusable had the party subsequently recovered from it.

In truth the error set the foundations for a blitzkrieg on Labour’s legacy (I remember those noughties op-ed pieces that proclaimed how Blair and Brown had decisively re-framed the debate about public service investment). And it has made it all the more easy for the coalition, with a metaphorical straight-face, to make so much noise about what amounts to a few per cent economic growth in three years. 
you could close down the economy for a year. The next year economic growth would be fantastic. [But] only a fool would argue that this showed that closing down the economy for a year was a great idea.
(As an aside I think the metaphor of 'closing down' is interesting. Could it have have been used by Labour to re-frame the debate about austerity?)

Anyway, back to Alistair Campbell. In a piece from June he shone some light on his approach to PR consultancy (Donkey passim). The piece was adapted from a Powerpoint presentation given in Australia and its intended audience was business people, not the Labour Party (Context is important here because I don’t want to ‘spin’ Alistair Campbell). In it he blogged about how important it was for key decision-makers, in any organisation, to be in total agreement about organizational strategy and objectives as a prerequisite to successful PR.
Speaking to his assembled audience of business leaders he said: 
If you are not aligned on strategy, you, the key people running the show, [then] why should the public be expected to know and hear what you are trying to say or sell to them? And why should the media not take every chance it can to make your life more difficult, pore over your errors, ignore your successes?
And here I will introduce a thought experiment. Let's suppose Alistair Campbell was in the market for a job heading up Labour Party's comms for the 2015 general election. Were he to accept such a hypothetical job offer from Ed Miliband, one can only assume that he would be banging the table and repeating the mantra that decision-makers who are not aligned on strategy have something far worse than a PR problem, they have a ‘reality problem’.

Are Ed Miliband and Ed Balls out of alignment on the key messages relating to Labour's economic track record? Campbell is on the record as believing that Labour can successfully rebut the ‘mess Labour left’ line, but he says that certain people in the Labour Party won’t go there. And though it would be tantalizing to know who in the Labour hierarchy is blocking this rebuttal, a focus on individual personalities probably misses the point.

The universal PR point that we can take from Campbell’s blog piece is that only when key decision makers are on the same page in terms of objectives and strategy, is it possible to get a foot in the ring. I infer from this that, on the issue of Labour’s economic record, the key party decision-makers are out of alignment.

I’d be interested to know how Campbell thinks it possible for Labour to turn the tide on this 18 months from a general election. He seems to think it is possible, arguing that Labour should rebut the coalition line. The problem is that frankly, in 2013, such a rebuttal would be more than three years too late. In fact it should have been made - with iron discipline - every day since Labour lost the 2010 election.