Thursday, 20 August 2015

Next Labour leader must find a way to communicate with voters direct without the press mediating

Whoever becomes Labour leader should pin up the Sun front page from the last election in a place where it will act as a daily reminder of the destructive power of the press. That front page was dominated by a grotesque - and familiar - picture of Ed Miliband. The Sun’s message to its millions of readers was that this man could not be trusted with the country. This assertion was not based on Miliband’s words or deeds but on the evidence of how he once ate a bacon sandwich. There is no doubt that that message - repeated in the press many times - was effective.

In elections, perception is more important than reality. Even if they prove to be a brilliant leader and they go into the next election with excellent policies, the new Labour leader will lose unless they can find a way to communicate with voters without the press distorting and undermining their message.

Most political information does not come direct to voters from politicians but - even in the internet age - it comes to them mediated by the national press and broadcasters.  To a great extent it is the press who set the political agenda in the UK and the broadcasters - most importantly the BBC -reflect that agenda. Ownership of the press in the UK is dominated by a handful of billionaires and the papers are overwhelmingly pro-Tory and anti-Labour.

Many people scoff derisively at the idea that the press has a powerful influence in shaping people’s political views.This is odd. After all, no one doubts the power to influence behaviour of the billions spent annually on advertising and PR. Essentially, the same process is at work.

On issue after issue at the last election, Labour saw their messages distorted by the press - from their repeated denials that “Labour overspending” caused the global financial crash, to their promotion of popular policies on zero hours contracts, the rental market, ending non-dom status and reimposing the 50p tax rate. As the press twisted and fabricated, Labour was left frustrated and unable to effectively get their messages across to the voters.

The new Labour leader needs to find a way to deal with the press which is different from how either Tony Blair or Ed Miliband did so.

Blair dealt with the press very effectively but at a price. Rupert Murdoch and others knew Blair was no threat to their power or that of the so-called 1% more widely. The new Labour leader is unlikely to agree to such a bargain.

Miliband’s approach was the opposite to Blair’s. He took on Murdoch and the Mail and other rich and powerful forces. Unfortunately, his approach, whilst certainly bold, also now seems foolhardy. In a head-on fight, the press will always win.

Miliband’s successor needs a comprehensive strategy to ensure their messages reach voters direct, without being distorted by the press. There are a number of ways this could be done. I set out the outline of just one of those ways.

The leader should appear on a monthly live TV programme. It would come from a different area of the UK each month. For every episode, ten members of the public from that area would be selected, by an independent company, to form a representative sample of all potential voters in the area. The Labour leader would then meet the ten individually. Each would have a five minute one-to-one conversation with the leader on live TV.

The programme would give a platform to people who are currently invisible in the national political debate - such as 18 and 88 year olds; and those struggling with illness, poverty pay or unemployment. A representative sample of the electorate would include supporters of all parties and also those who feel apathetic or alienated from politics. Viewers would see two people sat as equals, no chairperson, no audience, no set agenda. The members of the public would raise whatever issues matter to them.

The programme would be a mix of Reality TV and a traditional political interview. It would be the antithesis of the micromanaged sterile 2015 election campaign where politicians never risked an unscripted encounter with a member of the public.

The format would allow the new Labour leader to have proper conversations with a great variety of people from across the UK - not just the middle-aged, well-off, London-based types who so dominate the national political conversation.

There would be some bruising encounters and that would be no bad thing. It would be good to see Jeremy Corbyn, for example, engaging with diehard Tories.

People would see the Labour leader listening and engaging with people like themselves and at the same time the leader would get their own messages across - direct and unmediated to the viewing public.