LONDON – “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” wrote Oscar Wilde.
“And that is not being talked about.”
Over recent months an eerie silence has settled over the Labour party. After a long period in which the future survival of the party regularly filled the headlines, Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory meant Labour suddenly dropped out of the national conversation.
It was not just the scale of Corbyn’s win which caused attention to fall away. His thumping 62% victory over Owen Smith made it clear that any second leadership challenge would be as unsuccessful as the first.
But the result also neutered press interest.
Stories about Labour MPs’ dissatisfaction with Corbyn, a long-running Fleet Street staple, quickly became old hat. The corridor outside Labour MP’s weekly parliamentary meetings, which were once filled with journalists eager to hear briefings from disgruntled Labour MPs, suddenly fell empty. The parliamentary Labour party, once accused by the left of the party of mounting a sinister “coup” against their leader, was revealed as a paper tiger.
The press, accused by the Corbyn movement of being part of the “establishment coup” against their leader, simply lost interest in him. Far from fearing Corbyn and Labour and wishing to destroy them, as some of his supporters had long claimed, Tory-leaning newspapers increasingly treated him as an irrelevance.
And it was not just the press that lost interest in Labour. Since Corbyn’s second victory public support for the party has dropped into the mid twenties, with some projections suggesting Labour could get as few as 20% of all votes at the next general election.
Those deserting Labour have done so, not just because they do not like what Labour are saying, but because they do not know what Labour are saying in the first place. One focus group of UKIP-leaning Labour voters found that 67% had no idea what Labour’s main message was, with many reporting that they had “no reason to vote Labour beyond habit and social norm”.
Too weak to win, but too strong to die
If the risk last summer was that Labour would explode, the risk now is that it will simply quietly drift away. Yet despite losing support across the country, the quirks of Britain’s electoral system will almost certainly prevent a complete wipeout of the party. As the Fabian Society’s Andrew Harrop said recently, Labour are now in the unhappy position of being both “too weak to win, but too strong to die.”
Faced with this grim reality, Jeremy Corbyn’s team this week sprang back into life.
A flagship event, billed as his “reboot” speech was called and the usually media-shy Labour leader was shoved in front of a round of broadcast interviews. The results were mixed. The Labour leader seemed relaxed and at ease chatting with Piers Morgan on the “Good Morning Britain” sofa, yet he seemed unprepared for detailed questions on immigration and Labour’s Brexit policy. Although, officially a speech on Brexit, Corbyn veered off into discussing proposals about executive pay caps — an idea which quickly dominated the day’s headlines.
Meanwhile the NHS crisis, which Labour had spent days desperately trying to get into the headlines, was barely mentioned at all. As the Corbyn-supporting commentator Owen Jones commented: “First you distract from focusing on the NHS with immigration, then you distract from your immigration distraction. Labour needs a clear vision backed up with clear messaging, not randomly throwing proposals into the ether.”
Moving beyond Corbyn
Yet randomly throwing proposals into the ether is exactly what Corbyn’s team seem prepared to do.
The idea of having a simple media grid in which everyone in the party focuses on one clear message for weeks, if not months on end, is not one that Corbyn’s team seem willing to adopt.
Instead, this week we have seen interventions from Labour on the NHS, pay caps, the single market and Nato policy in Estonia.
The aim seems less about setting out a clear message than building an audience. On this, Corbyn’s pay cap policy is instructive. While clearly controversial in the press, polls suggest it is potentially popular with the public. Crucially Corbyn’s team believe that anything that gets people talking about Labour policies, rather than just their internal troubles, can only be a good thing.
“We want to move beyond the Jeremy Corbyn show,” one source close to the leaders’ office told me this week. “There are so many policy areas where the Tories are vulnerable and we want to start talking about them.”
Labour had one early success in this field on Wednesday.
A confident performance by Corbyn at prime minister’s questions, put Theresa May on the back foot on the subject of the NHS. Corbyn recently hired David Prescott, son of the former Deputy prime minister, to help him prepare for PMQs and it is already bearing fruit. His questions on the “humanitarian crisis” in the NHS proved prescient after NHS chief Simon Stevens later told MPs that government cuts were putting “huge pressure” on care. The story features prominently on the front pages of many newspapers today.
The focus on Labour’s internal woes haven’t totally gone away. Momentum’s decision to announce its plans to affiliate to the Labour party caused consternation among many of Corbyn’s critics. Corbyn-Sceptic MP Andrew Blenkinsop told me he would oppose the plans “with every fibre of my body.”
Yet interestingly, Team Corbyn were similarly perplexed. “I don’t know what Lansman is playing at,” one source close to the leaders’ office told me.
But whatever you think of Corbyn’s performance this week, at least people are now talking about him. After months in which he appeared to have all but disappeared from the national conversation, the Labour leader is suddenly grabbing our attention once again. To adapt Wilde, the only thing worse than losing, is not being asked to play at all. Labour may still be in a bad place, but after this week, they’re at least now back in the game.
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