To say it’s been a tough few weeks for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Left would be an understatement. If there even was a honeymoon, it is certainly over now. The Tories have moved to discredit the new leadership – adding to the furore created by despondent members and MPs.
The largely negative polls that have circulated in recent weeks may have some silver linings, but the overall lead for the Tories is worrying and drastic action is needed before a concrete trend develops. In times of political difficulty it’s always important to examine the messages you’re sending the electorate. If Corbyn wants an example, he needn’t look further than the government benches.
In mid-2012 I was a smug lefty: the Tory party – having failed to win a majority in 20 years – was on the ropes and ten points behind Labour, whose leader had begun pitching some modest but progressive policies. Retrospectively, it's still hard to believe that David Cameron re-entered Downing Street as Prime Minister in May 2015. However, amongst the multifarious explanations for this outcome, it seems unarguable that one of the core elements of the Conservative turnaround was how the party delivered its message.
Indeed, in the run-up to the election you couldn't switch on the news without Tories talking about 'the long term economic plan', 'fixing the roof while the sun is shining’, being ‘the party of hard working people’, and declaring the economic state of emergency over. Labour, on the other hand, not only failed to shake off the blame for causing the deficit, but could only respond with the vagueness of ‘One Nation’ or ‘Hard Working Britain Better Off’.
The pugnacious attempt of the Conservatives to recover from an ‘Omnishambles’ budget to become the party of ‘fiscal responsibility’ paid off. The dominance of the Tory message caught on and allowed them to dictate the narrative around the economy – forcing Labour to play on their terms. On May 8th, the old political cliché, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ became painfully obvious.
Since the election of Corbyn as Labour leader in September, I have maintained that it will be vital for Labour to match the Tories’ dominance in media management. However, there are currently several narratives that are undermining the new Labour leader. First, the Tories have been able to entrench the notion that only they are capable of protecting both the economy and the country. Second, is the narrative about the leadership’s efficacy. Both the SNP and the Lib Dems launched attacks early on, accusing Labour of shirking its responsibility to provide ‘real opposition’ to the Conservatives.
The first and most important task for Corbyn and his director of Communications, Seumas Milne, is to carve out what indeed the party is about. A ‘New Kind of Politics’ or ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’ were slogans that worked well during an internal Labour Party election. They now need to develop their ideas in order to attract new voters. Given that Cameron's Conservatives claim to be a ‘Workers’ Party’, Corbyn and Milne would do well to win back that mantle and demonstrate the absurdity of the Tories' rhetoric.
However – as the Autumn Statement demonstrated – it will be difficult to knock the Conservatives off their perch. In a shrewd manoeuvre, the Tories allowed rumours of police cuts to stay in the ether, whilst avoiding any major budget leaks. Osborne’s speech was rammed full of soundbites that quashed pre-budget rumours and deflected from potentially damaging spending cuts.
Read more on the Autumn Statement
Osborne's Autumn Statement: How will young people be affected?
On the other side of the chamber, a Shadow Chancellor full of passion and anger showed his distaste for the government’s opaque budget, but was equally vague about his own alternative. The anti-austerity agenda can only work by employing a digestible set of messages. Although McDonnell has received an unfair amount of criticism after using Mao’s Little Red Book to highlight the folly of Osborne’s dealings with China, it was still clearly a tactical miscalculation that at least partially undermined his response.
The Tories are good at getting their message across: they repeat it time and time again until it becomes true. Labour shouldn’t get into the business of unprincipled soundbite politics, but there is a happy medium to be found. Developing a clear, comprehensible message, Labour need not automatically cohere to the over-stylised, stage-managed politics of recent decades. The greatest enemy of ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’ is a lack of clarity. Corbyn, Milne and McDonnell can’t walk away from the table and let the Tories control the game, but rather they need to find a way to flip-over the proverbial table.
As the pressure mounts and the fight continues, there is a simple lesson to be heeded from the failures of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party: if you don't carve out a message, someone else will do it for you.