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Labour Needs to Re-Learn How to Tame the Media Beast

Is the media really out to get Corbyn?

Elliot McArdle

Naked Politics Blogger 

It has become an article of faith amongst many Labour supporters to proclaim that the mainstream media has it out for their party. Indeed, after months of talking down the traditional press’ influence in the run up to last year’s election, a humbling defeat led to an outpouring of self-pity. Margaret Beckett’s report into the causes of defeat also mentions the ‘exceptionally vitriolic’ media. Yet recent events pose troubling questions for Corbyn’s press team and the party’s campaign strategy going forward.

A quick glance at poll numbers should indicate that attacking journalists has not helped Corbyn among the wider electorate. Seamus Milne, the party’s director of strategy and communications and his team, seem to have decided that negative headlines and opinion pieces have become something of a virtue, something to be worn with pride. Whilst Corbyn’s performances in Prime Minister Questions have been largely lambasted as low energy and ineffective, his strongest performance came when he took Cameron to task over the scrapping of student grants. This should have provided some respite for the leader, yet later that week the main story was the potential plan to share the Falklands with Argentina.

A distinct lack of capable press management has been a constant feature of Corbyn’s short reign. The recent ‘longest re-shuffle in history’ was marked by an absence of press briefings, which bring inevitable speculation and the image of chaos. This week also serves as a perfect example. The flirtation with Yanis Varoufakis was always, at the very least, going to be a tough sell. Quite why the Labour leadership saw fit to announce this bizarre decision hours before Osborne faced treasury questions in the Commons is something that is nearly impossible to comprehend. Osborne predictably raised the Varoufakis issue, he would have been stupid not to. It also served to take attention away from increasing Conservative divides over Europe.

This pattern of media mismanagement hurts the party twice over. The leadership is already seen as dodgy on the economy and lacking in direction. Yet it also lets the Conservative Party off incredibly easily. During the re-shuffle the Tories pressed a housing bill that drew criticism from nearly all corners of the press. Yet Labour were too busy hurting themselves to highlight this issue and present a credible opposition.  Every Conservative weakness has been allowed to slip away and has failed to increase Corbyn’s popularity. He steadfastly refused to use PMQs to talk about the junior doctor’s strike until it had fallen out of the news cycle. After the embarrassing axing of the cuts to child tax credits, McDonnell used the opportunity to bring out Mao’s little red book.

One can make a real argument that parts of the press focus on trivial matters and are prone to sensationalism. Yet Labour has to learn to operate and strategise in this context. At the moment it is only serving to highlight its own weaknesses. Given how divided the party is, it is possible that Milne is seeking to use negative press as a way to galvanise paranoid members and present Corbyn as a victim of the ‘disloyal’ Blairites and the ‘corrupt’ Murdoch mafia. Any other interpretation means that the press strategy is inept and clueless.

However, perhaps the most worrying trends for the party can be seen in two other political campaigns. Donald Trump is the likely nominee for the Republican Party. The media coverage he has received, whilst plentiful, has been overwhelmingly negative. There is not a major press outlet that has endorsed his candidacy. Yet Trump continues to maintain a lead in the polls and rack up delegates. Similarly, Cameron’s recent negotiations with the EU have been roundly panned as weak and ineffectual. Despite this, most indications suggest that the In Campaign is still on course to triumph despite this. This Labour leadership holds numerous positions that run contrary to public opinion, something that generally leads to lower approval ratings. The policy areas where Labour is more in line with the public have been poorly packaged and presented.

Negative press coverage is rarely helpful, but people are not simply sheep being led by the most glowing op-ed or tabloid headline. It has always confused me how certain Labour supporters have decided that the public, that they care so much about, are simply too stupid and gullible to vote for them. Anything else would require a level of introspection that the party seems utterly incapable of at this moment in time.

Ideas and perception matter to voters. Corbyn’s press team have been unwilling or unable to communicate a vision or image of competence. The press is a tool that can be used, not solely an enemy. The sooner this Labour leadership understands this, the sooner it can concentrate on finally presenting a credible opposition.

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