William Lane writes a profile on Ben Nunn, Labour's new director of communications.
It is widely accepted that Labour lost the 2019 election for two reasons: Brexit and the un-electability of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, what is less recognised is the underlying factor causing these to so pivotal in the election - the Tory ability to deliver a campaign message. No matter how embarrassing it may be for cabinet ministers to embody pound shop hypnotists, sitting opposite Andrew Marr and repeating the words ‘Get Brexit Done’ that is all we saw during the election. Simple, powerful, easy to communicate messaging works and ‘Get Brexit Done’ ticked all these boxes.
Labour has struggled to contend with the Tory media playbook since David Cameron brought Lynton Crosby on board and its failure to respond to this messaging masterstroke during and since since the election has created an important question for the party. How does it respond to the Tory spin machine in an unforgiving media environment, having spent pretty much a decade overshadowed by a more unforgiving and superior media strategy?
Faced with the same problem in 1985, Neil Kinnock, to whom Labour’s new leader is often compared, appointed Peter Mandleson who transformed Labour’s media messaging into a slick machine that epitomised how the party was willing to change in order to get in to government.
The person responsible for doing a Mandleson (by which I mean transforming Labour’s media strategy, not necessarily mirroring his impact on party policy) is Ben Nunn, a relatively unknown communications professional with close ties to the ‘soft-left’ of the Labour party. Yet while the scale of his task is similar to Mandleson’s, the two could not be more dissimilar.
With a background that is more communications than politics there is not an abundance of evidence as to how Nunn will combat the effective Tory spin machine. Having worked in healthcare PR, which will no doubt provide plenty of ammunition to his detractors, Nunn has a firm grounding in effective communication strategies, supplemented by a short period in the charity sector before his move in to politics as part of former shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander’s team.
Working for Alexander, Nunn demonstrated his talent for politics and communications talent, with the NHS and healthcare sector being a rare source of Labour victories in the press. A brief return to Incisive Health, was followed by a key role for Owen Smith’s 2016 doomed leadership bid, before joining Keir Starmer’s team shadowing the Brexit brief and was his personal spokesperson during the leadership campaign.
His success as part of Starmer’s team certainly suggests he is capable of transforming Labour’s image, using his nous and experience as a communications professional, rather than political manoeuvring to great effect. Importantly, Nunn is by all accounts a rare friendly face in politics, who is well liked by a number of key figures, which may play an important part in maintaining party media discipline. Indeed what was most impressive about the Starmer campaign was its ability to convince the Labour left, right, and everyone else in between that he is on their side, a trick Starmer and Nunn will have to continue to pull in order to reform Labour’s public image.
Nunn’s task then, is similar to Mandleson’s: convince the party, the Tories, and the electorate that Labour Party is a government in waiting and internal politics comes second to providing an effective opposition.
Judging by the recent leaks released, he has his work cut out, but in Starmer, Labour have a leader capable of providing unity, and we must hope that in Nunn they have a director of communications capable of navigating through the Labour parties good times and bad.