Foot in Mouth Disease

The typical refrain from many left-leaning groups is that the media don’t give Labour under Jeremy Corbyn a fair hearing. That if only the media would fairly report his message, then the scales would surely fall from the eyes of the general public and a peaceful revolution would occur.

For anyone paying attention, today was a perfect example of exactly why that view is massively over-simplistic, and why a huge part of the blame for their perilous relationship with the media lies squarely at their own door.

Risk aversion

In looking at this, let’s begin toward the end of the day when Theresa May carried out another tightly-choreographed campaign appearance where many political journalists – even Tory-leaning ones – were kept away. This seems likely to be the Conservative approach to the weeks ahead, avoiding real public interaction for the Prime Minister and therefore minimising risk (all of which of course seriously undermines her stated reasoning for avoiding the TV debates, but that’s another matter). There’ll be no War of Jennifer’s Ear and no Gillian Duffies if the Tory team have their way.

This presents an opportunity (however small) for Labour. As mentioned in an earlier post, political journos on the campaign trail can quickly get testy if they’re not regularly fed (literally or metaphorically). Labour needs the media more than the media needs them, and an open arms approach during this campaign is the only sensible option. With the Tories shunning journos as part of the risk-averse tactics this campaign, there’s a route to improved relations with at least some members of the fifth estate.

So what do we get during media questions after Corbyn’s speech this morning? We get predictable jeering from Labour supporters when invited political journalists set about asking perfectly reasonable (if uncomfortable) questions in the course of carrying out their job. This is self-indulgence of the highest regard because if you’re a Labour supporter attending a Corbyn rally this campaign, I guarantee you are not helping him whatsoever by expressing your righteous anger at the media scum should they dare to question him. You’re only making things worse (and yes, it can get worse).

We already know low opinion that Team Corbyn has of the media, and we know that many on the left lay huge amounts of blame at the door of the media for what is considered to be unfair coverage. But none of that matters. We’re in an election campaign and the media is what it is. It won’t change as a result of earnest argument or zealous shouting down. The sooner Team Corbyn and his supporters realise this (already two years too late, of course) the better chance they have of cutting through in any significant way with their message over the next seven weeks.

Foot in mouth disease

If the Labour campaign was slick and professional then there might be cause in lashing out at critics and the media. But it’s not and today was a perfect example of Labour’s shortcomings in communications (not to mention basic putting one foot in front of the other, rather than in one’s own mouth).

Today was Corbyn’s first set-piece campaign event after some more straightforward soapbox sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday. The speech was impressive, a reasonable delivery with undeniable passion. Even critics were heard to say that they were impressed that he had the bit between his teeth. Jeremy was being Jeremy, doing what he does best by railing against the machine.

In all honesty I was a little taken aback by his aggression and the extent to which he was prepared to go down the populist (almost Trumpesque, dare I say it) route. Nevertheless it was impressive in its own way, and it’s probably the best of very few options available to a Corbyn-led Labour at this election. I was buoyed by it as I listened in.

But any opportunity of cutting through was lost with spectacular own goals. The first we’ve already discussed above: the jeering of questions from invited journalists. Though this was bad enough, it could at leat be argued that is was nothing other than over-zealous supporters being overly-protective of their man. That sort of thing can be corrected for future events with some better stage-management.

The second own goal should be the bigger worry at Labour HQ however, as it’s both symptomatic of their ongoing problems with message discipline and (worse) indicative of the fact that even major policy positions haven’t in fact been thought through.

It went a little something like this…

We ran through a couple of hours where the Leader, the Shadow Chancellor and the Shadow Foreign Secretary were offered (literally) tens of opportunities to rule out a second referendum on Brexit. They failed to do so. A story began to gain momentum that perhaps Labour might try to outflank the LibDems with an offering to put the eventual Brexit deal to the people for their verdict. It would be a tricky sell in Labour heartlands but a defensible policy with some merit nevertheless. It would certainly be bold.

You began to suspect something was amiss as Corbyn struggled desperately to keep the focus during the morning on his intended “people vs the establishment” takeaway from the speech. Even an idiot would understand that you don’t leak details of a huge policy bombshell during a set-piece speech which is intended to define the overall arc of the campaign to come. And you certainly don’t do it during a speech in which the Leader is trying again to claim that this election is note all about Brexit (it is).

It was safe at this stage to conjecture with some confidence that one of two things was happening. Either this was an actual policy (a Brexit 2 referendum) and the presentation had gone massively (stupendously) wrong. Or else this was not in fact policy and a chancer in the press-pack was prodding for a weakness. I which case Labour should define their position right away my making it clear that it is not policy to have a second referendum and it will not be in the manifesto. In that scenario, the story isn’t even born.

But that’s not what happened.

Initially when asked, Corbyn rambled about the kind of relationship he would like to see with Europe. This gave the media their “no denial” angle on a story which would obviously shoot straight to the top of bulletins (because it’s newsworthy, not because of some grand conspiracy). If that weren’t bad enough he again failed to rule it out, made worse by Thornbury and McDonnell (in particular) failing on more than a dozen occasions to put the record straight. A denial then followed from the Labour press office which still fell short of categorically ruling out a second referendum before finally, hours after the speech which had now been largely overshadowed, the Leader’s office confirmed this was not and would not be Labour policy.

Blowing in the wind

The only realistic takeaway from the whole episode is that, prior to this afternoon, Labour had not actually decided whether or not they would be in favour of holding a second referendum. It could be argued that the option hadn’t even crossed their mind until the question had been put, though that’s (hopefully) a stretch. Whatever the case, it would certainly seem that such an important decision was actually reached over the course of a few hours under pressure from the media for clarification.

This should have been a simple answer on a key point of policy that was worked through in advance. Instead it overshadowed a good speech with genuinely interesting content.

General election campaigns are brutal and they shine spotlights on weaknesses. Already, Labour’s twin weaknesses of communications and agreed policy are on display for all to see.

Until Labour can get hold of their messaging (which in truth can’t happen while they don’t have hold of their policies) they will continue to suffer from foot in mouth disease. And that will play directly into the “captain chaos” trap that the Tories have laid from the outset.

Those are the innate weaknesses which explain why Labour are 24 points behind in the polls today. These are unpalatable truths but until such issues are addressed (and a General Election is hardly the time to address them) Labour will continually be pushing boulders uphill.

And that’s not easy when your feet are planted firmly in your mouth.