Michael Culbert discusses the need for the Labour Party to rethink its media strategy.
Time and time again Labour are losing the marketing battle and we are missing out on opportunities to capture large swathes of the electorate agree with Labour on key policies. Labour is up against it in much of the media; print and online news, largely owned by billionaire Tory donors, is the most egregious offender when it comes to stirring up division and fear among ordinary people that undermines Labour’s support. Television is fairer to Labour, but even here our representatives consistently fail to cut through the noise with a clear message of radical change that could electrify their support in a country acutely aware of inequality and injustice.
Right-wing populism feeds off many of the same problems the left has the real solutions to. The charlatans behind our leaving the European Union, for example, harnessed anger about inequality and vanishing prospects for many communities and steered it towards migrants and foreign lawmakers. Scapegoating is nothing new, and since 2008 it has been the staple of British politics; but it is Labour’s responsibility to counter the deception more effectively and pull common sense in the UK back from the brink – to quash unproductive and dangerous ideas of division and hatred, and to clearly lay at the doorstep of those at the top the blame for our broken economic system.
A party that rediscovers the Celtic fire of Nye Bevan is one that can transform a country. Bevan was not afraid to be frank about his contempt for the Tories - famously referring to them as “lower than vermin”. It backfired and was perhaps unwise, but today’s Labour has gone too far in the other direction. They should not be afraid, as Bevan never was, to call the Tories what they are: anti-working-class servants of the richest in our society; and equally importantly, that they must be proud and relentless in talking about the incredibly popular policies Labour now stands for. When a Labour MP is asked about the latest soap opera nonsense of our sensationalised political discourse, whether that’s the jacket Jeremy Corbyn wore to a remembrance service, or the latest insightful advice from Tony Blair; they should immediately dismiss the distraction and pivot to manifesto commitment after another. This may sound somewhat unrealistic, but this model for dealing with the media has been expertly demonstrated by Bernie Sanders in the USA since 2014, who is in the same position as Labour, with a set of immensely popular policy proposals which the more the public hear about, the more they realise who is on their side.
Every time Sanders and supporters of his, such as the president of Our Revolution, Nina Turner, appear on news and talk shows on mainstream corporate media they steer the conversation to Medicare For All; ending the drug war; restoring taxes on the rich to sustainable levels – and often this is done in an unpolished way, as they’re interrupted desperately by the hosts that know exactly what is happening. Sanders is the most popular politician in the US now because of this, and Labour’s surge in the polls in 2017 is owed to the same phenomenon – when people hear our policies they see what Labour really stands for.
The Tories are masters of marketing. They are, after all, the party of law and order that cut police numbers by tens of thousands, and the competent custodians of a strong economy that has had wage stagnation since Thatcher’s assault on trade unions and ballooning inequality since she slashed wealth and income taxes for the richest in our society. Platitudes about healing division do not counteract the professional propaganda that has produced this doublethink – it must be attacked head on and the sense of credibility in these claims must be dismantled.
Many in the media are never going to easily give a left-wing Labour’s policies a fair hearing, least of all when regulations are relaxed away from elections. So, it’s time for our MPs to stop being so polite and remember they’re not on Andrew Marr to make friends – they’re there to represent working people; and working people will only be won over when they hear Labour sharing their anger, and proposing radical, popular solutions.
Michael Culbert is a Young Fabian member. Follow him on Twitter at @mculbert76