One way to get trusted is to tell the truth. Jeremy was ‘off message’ from the moment he was elected in 1983 (before the phrase ‘off message’ even existed), but that did not stop him being elected Leader of what is now the largest party in Western Europe. Voters are not dumb – above anything else they simply crave ‘authentic’. If you have the world’s best policies (charging private schools VAT to pay for school dinners is a pretty good one) but no-one believes or trusts you, then there is little point in fighting Elections. Jeremy’s time as Leader is a great opportunity for the party to change the way it communicates.
A situation that began with Peter Mandelson creating a communications machine to respond to Thatcher’s political success in the eighties has ended with party representatives often behaving like robots (and many would say we now select robots) – and voters pick up on it when politicians robotically simply tow a party line and so they distrust us. Our party more than ever needs leaders with radical ideas leading fresh debate – not robots.
When he became Leader Jeremy said “things can, and they will, change”. Now is the time for more of that change. The situation in Scotland has radically changed the Westminster political balance. The UKIP threat has changed the balance in England/Wales marginals. Brexit began as a bottom up grass-roots movement that led to our greatest change since 1975. At the same time as this radical political ‘paradigm shift’, the impression of total uniformity required by a centralised command and control system has pretty much become technological impossibility. Despite their best efforts to be forever on message, with just a couple of Google clicks and a bit of diligence a journalist, a party whip or a political opponent can find all sorts of apparent deviation from the party line by virtually all our senior politicians.
To regain public trust, there are a numbers of ways things could change. One way might be to make manifestos legal documents. The majority who (wrongly) distrust everything politicians say would be stunned if they realised that most manifestos are mostly carried out – there may be weasel words in some instances (‘if we have a political majority…, if resources allow…’), but that applies to all legal contracts when we buy things as consumers. Recently we saw the Tories maintain public confidence when Hammond reversed the budget commitment on National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed to uphold their manifesto. Manifestos are anyway written in the knowledge that politicians could be held to them. If they were a legal document, they would be written even more carefully and, more importantly, widely trusted. (The Electoral Commission, for example, might oversee the process to stop it being too legalistic). The thought that politicians might end up in the nick – in reality, it would only happen once in a blue moon if a politician truly deserved it – would surely increase public trust in manifestos. The biggest single disaster for the Lib Dems in the last 20 years as they went from nowhere to government and back almost to nowhere, was breaking their ‘Pledge’ on tuition fees.
Another suggestion to regain public trust might be to formally and culturally loosen party control. In his Conference Speech, or in a speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Jeremy could underline that we are a democracy so henceforward criticising the leadership’s policies will not be criticised – it is democratic debate. On the other side of politics, in his recent autobiography, Ken Clarke, twice nearly elected Leader of the Conservative party, makes clear his own ‘Corbyn-like’ disdain for being given a party line. There are frequent discussions about the nature of broadcasting, and either Jeremy, or better still a cross-party alliance, should agree with broadcasters that while critical examination of policies is the life-blood of democracy, permanently disparaging politicians merely puts off voters. Broadcasters are actually very keen on supporting democracy (getting rid of political programmes and replacing them with sitcom repeats would save them a lot of money and hassle, while at the same time increasing the number of viewers in those self-same slots). In recent years, political interviews have been more ‘gaff-ocratic’ than democratic. If a politician says one thing that can be interpreted as veering away from a party line (a line that probably only six people fully understand anyway) then the Westminster village blogosphere and social media can go wild, feeding off a frequently meaningless media frenzy. A few apparatchiks in party headquarters (some may enjoy the control freaky power) are unhappy but outside the Westminster village, people simply do not care. Perhaps to the surprise of the ‘village’, the world has not ended since members of the shadow cabinet defied the three-line Brexit whip and stayed on in their posts. The Daily Mail may have called it ‘chaos’, but to many Labour supporters and potential supporters it was just Westminster village background noise.
An end to Mandelsonian command and control would of course be tough – especially for a Labour party accustomed to being spoon-fed lines which have to be learnt as if for an exam, and it would certainly require intelligent comradely contributions to our thinking in public. The Tories were given the ‘non-fact’ to repeat in all political interviews that Labour ‘over-spent’ till by the time of the last Election it became an accepted truth. The Tories would say that our much-repeated line that the NHS is “not safe in their hands” became an accepted truth after the Labour spin-machine kept on repeating it (there is a ‘grid’ where party political machines try to control the daily news agenda, which naturally can have the effect of making broadcasters want to talk about anything but the parties’ news agenda). Thinking ‘what do I think?’ before answering a question on TV is not something the current generation of ‘robot politicians’ have been trained for. Obviously many of Labour’s current ‘rules of engagement’ should remain. Throughout his long career, Jeremy has always called on people to support Labour, even at the height of Blairism. Politicians should always support their side’s budgets. Personal insults towards your own side will always be newsworthy (and unwise as well as uncomradely) and can inevitably dominate the tweetosphere.
A pervasive sense of command and control is now Labour’s culture. I can recall as a member of party staff endless occasions where elected members felt unhappy about going on the media to talk on areas (where they had quite enough to say) until they had spoken to the relevant spad, or even assistant to a spad (who had frequently not had to think through policy to the level of detail that worried that member!) As I sit as a backbench councillor in a Council where Labour has a huge majority, on peripheral issues I could disagree with my leadership in public. It would not matter at all, in my view. I could but I do not because I am culturally Labour and only air policy disagreements with colleagues privately. Our party is currently the largest in Western Europe, highly dynamic yet low in the opinion polls. A few years ago we were where the Tories are now (a moribund shrinking political party, but high in the polls). We do not now need the command and control analogue solutions of the nineties at this crucial moment in the party’s history. Many senior party staff and politicians have for some time been privately (!) critical of the damage Labour’s command and control has caused.
A political party does not need a line on everything. In power, of course it needs coherent government, and to get that it needs an agreed manifesto, but on most issues in opposition, – and on very many in government – open debate is of itself entirely harmless. Opponents can shout ‘shambles’ till they are blue (or orange) in the face but we should shout back, on the front foot, that we are the honest party, they are the old-fashioned centralised spin machine era.
In one major announcement indicating a gear change in our politicians’ relationships with people, Labour could announce a raft of measures to change the nature of politics. The above are just some possible ways for Labour to become more trusted. Some or all may not work, and all need to be openly discussed, refined and improved before they could possibly work. Others will have better ideas.
What is clear is that in an age where both politics and communication have changed, Jeremy has a unique opportunity to try to change political communication for the better.
Dave Poyser joined Labour in 1977. He is a Councillor in Islington North, prior to stints as Press Officer for the Socialist MEPs and Labour MEPs in Brussels totalling five years. Previously he was an Executive Producer in UK television.