Conventional wisdom has it that a lack of guile contributed to Jeremy Corbyn’s shock triumph in the Labour leadership election. He won because he was the anti-spin candidate.
But having been smeared, derided and traduced by the press since winning the election, Corbyn was urged ahead of his party conference speech to get “professional” – in other words time to get spinning or be lost.
But maybe a glance at how PR itself has changed will reveal that what Corbyn is doing has its own merit. It’s not clear that a more “professional” approach, where this is taken simply to mean returning to media relations as usual – of the kind used by Number 10 in the Blair era – would increase the amount of favourable coverage he gets.
Although Corbyn’s speeches might benefit from more rehearsal, it’s also important to think about where Corbyn has been strong. How he has achieved the the biggest-ever mandate for a Labour leader and massively increased party membership.
One of the most interesting aspects about his successful campaign for the Labour leadership was that – unwittingly or not – it revived an older practice of public relations in the UK. Because the idea that public relations is mainly about managing press headlines, or measuring media coverage is actually a relatively new one.
It is also an idea that plays into a myth that is comforting to journalists, that media opinion is the same as public opinion: that the whole complexity of the public’s relationships can be contained in the media’s representation of them. Or as Campbell put it to the Leveson enquiry with typically astute bluntness: “It’s journalists that are the real spin doctors.”
By contrast, Corbyn appears to see public relations as the pioneers of the profession in the UK, as an add-on to civic society not as a container for it. A local mental health charity event was prioritised over an appearance on the Andrew Marr show.
It’s a little-known story that the pioneers of public relations in the UK were the people who promoted the London Tube map and Routemaster buses, who invented “dial 999”, the speaking clock and the Jubilee telephone kiosk. These 1930s innovations were prompted by many of the same types of challenges we face today: economic depression, new technology, and the unpredictable path of mass democracy.
Having come to prominence during the slump, partly as a way of navigating totalitarianism, during the war these pioneers would build the V for Victory campaign, design new towns and plan the Festival of Britain. These initiatives weren’t done to increase media reach, or win the headlines (which they understood were controlled by the newspaper barons and newsreel censors) but they were about building relationships.
People in interwar Britain – from the poor and marginalised to the new consumer classes –were put into contact by these new media pioneers through discussions, films and even telephone debates. They took the electorate seriously. The language for making a new nation was taking shape.
When you look at the artwork that David Gentleman did for the Stop the War campaign, which was chaired by Corbyn, or simply the sharply designed logo of his leadership campaign, you can see something of this older visual tradition of public relations in the UK. Good design and media enabled civic connectivity as a conduit for actual social and attitudinal change.
By contrast, an analysis popular with the commentariat is that young Corbyn voters in the election were a regrettable product of an irresponsible age of social media. An age where people want opinions that project a personal image to the world – so-called identity politics – and which signify something about their personality, rather than picking sensible leaders that could win a grown-up election.
Ironically, this is actually quite an old put down; a curmudgeonly dismissal that tends to resurface every time the prospect of political transformation, for example the responses to full votes for women and the working class, rears its anarchic head.
While it wasn’t the change that the pioneers expected, it’s always struck me that it is no coincidence that the biggest economic and political shift that modern Britain has ever seen arguably came in the wake of the new practices of public relations finding their feet in the 1930s.
Sneer if you want but …
The 21st century may once more show the strength of the pioneers’ approach to public relations. The short-term managing of headlines is an impossible task – in a 24-hour news environment a politician will likely always look on the defensive in times of crisis (real or manufactured). Instead, political parties are forced to play a longer game while shrewd politicians begin to stock up on integrity for the inevitable moments when their judgement goes astray. The wheel has turned and approaches that were once dismissed as old hat are starting to look prescient again. Unwittingly or not, this is the approach that Corbyn has taken.
All of which makes it important that being “professional” at the conference in Brighton does not preclude the Labour leadership from continuing to focus on ways to coax the wide network of civic and social relationships that they can call upon (a network far wider than that of the present-day Conservatives) into the media. Bring these groups together – verbally, visually and emotionally – and unpredictable things will happen.
It’s worth remembering that the UK’s news media generally sneered at the many social and political oddities of the “Million” march coalition against the Iraq War in 2003 but it marked a watershed in British politics, let alone new Labour’s electoral fortunes, that few predicted at the time.
Equally, it’s worth remembering that it was at a low ebb in World War II that the “V for Victory” campaign was born. What came out of existential weakness has now by a strange trick of history come to be seen as part of an inevitable triumph. There was little that was “professional” about it.