Corbyn's problem is style, not substance

13 May 2016


It’s safe to say that Jeremy Corbyn and the British media don’t get along. Ever since the veteran left-winger announced his intention to stand in last year’s Labour leadership contest, a sizeable section of the media have seemingly taken a dislike to him, producing countless articles, opinion pieces, and news segments that are peppered with hostility and anger. Understandably, Corbyn’s allies have responded with ire, using phrases such as “the right-wing media” and “Conservative bias” to explain why coverage has been largely unflattering. As a result, the Labour leader has consistently refused to play the media’s game, shunning interviews with particular figures and adopting an increasingly fierce bunker mentality as the criticisms continue to pile up.



Some of the coverage that Corbyn has received has certainly been unfair, and he and his team have a point when they talk about the current problems with the mainstream media. However, by treating all journalists with such disdain they are only harming themselves. Corbyn’s hostile attitude is shutting off avenues he desperately needs to explore if he is to have any chance of leading his party into the 2020 General Election.



Despite Corbyn’s continual struggles as he tries to win over vast swathes of the Parliamentary Labour Party, many of his views resonate with large sections of the electorate. His belief in the evils of austerity have chimed with voters across the political spectrum that are growing increasingly frustrated with Conservative cuts, whilst renationalisation of the railways continues to enjoy widespread support. Rent controls, the lowering of tuition fees, a return to a 50p top rate of tax - all of these are potential vote winners. The problem is that Corbyn’s consistently muddled message is making it difficult for him to communicate with the electorate.



This has led to Labour failing to make many gains in their attempt to win back voters that jumped ship at the last general election. Labour’s task in the run-up to 2020 is an incredibly difficult one, and it is a challenge that has presented problems that almost any party leader would struggle to deal with. This month’s local election results were underwhelming – despite not being quite as catastrophic as many were predicting – and point to the fact that Labour are still struggling to make gains against a Conservative government that (despite six years of austerity) suffered marginal losses on May 5th.



In Scotland, Labour were viciously beaten, indicating that their time as a serious political force north of the border is almost certainly up. Meanwhile, in the north of England and south of Wales, UKIP are continuing to eat away at Labour’s support in what were once their heartlands. Whilst Nigel Farage’s “purple revolution” has slowed down somewhat since last year’s general election, his party’s strong showings in white working-class areas of the country are a real worry for Labour. With their traditional base deserting them and their leader failing to connect with floating voters, a stark overhaul of methods is needed if Corbyn is to have any hope of increasing his support base.



Labour’s defeat in last year’s general election was largely down to the electorate’s view of Ed Miliband’s personality and image. A party leader who, like Corbyn, enjoyed support for several of his flagship policies, he nonetheless struggled to connect with voters. However, instead of learning from their disappointing loss, Labour have arguably gone backwards in the twelve months since Miliband announced his resignation. After briefly moving ahead of the Conservatives at the start of April, a poll conducted by Opinium in the final few days of the month revealed that Labour now lie eight points behind the Tories on 30%.



Sadiq Khan’s landslide victory in the London Mayoral Election could, and should, kick-start a change in focus for a Labour party that desperately need to gain momentum. The new mayor has called on his party to be “a big tent that appeals to everyone, not just its activists”. In a sign that suggests he may have been listening, Corbyn responded by admitting that Labour’s local election results were “mixed” and that he would start “attracting voters from all of the other parties”, but it remains to be seen if this is really the beginning of a concerted effort to improve his message and reach out to ambivalent swing voters.



There is a hunger amongst the public for many of Corbyn’s policies, but he is continually shooting himself in the foot with his inability to present a clear and passionate message to potential Labour voters. Even simple things are not explained clearly enough by Corbyn’s media strategists, allowing a vacuum to appear and suck in all types of speculation. Corbyn’s decision to travel to Bristol to congratulate newly-elected mayor Marvin Rees instead of attending Khan’s swearing-in ceremony was one that raised many eyebrows, but what made the situation worse was his inability to give clear and concise answers as to why he had made that choice. Similarly, his cack-handed dealing of the recent anti-semitism crisis portrayed him as being a weak and indecisive leader, two qualities that, when combined, are a sure-fire way to lose an election.



Labour’s continuing inability to gain the confidence of swing voters was highlighted in two recent focus groups conducted by Ed Miliband’s former pollster James Morris, who gauged the views of former Labour voters in Nuneaton. The Warwickshire town fell to the Conservatives in 2010, and whilst Labour were able to hold on to the local council in this month’s elections, their share of the vote suffered an 11% swing to the Tories. Evoking an image that will surely be used by Conservative spin doctors for months to come, one participant in the poll told Morris that “you want a charismatic leader, and to me, he’s more like Worzel Gummidge”. Phrases like “scruffy”, “old-fashioned”, and “beige” were also used to describe Corbyn, whilst Morris commented afterwards that “these focus groups are much more negative about Jeremy than the one that I conducted for Ed Miliband at a similar point in his leadership”.



In an effort to break from the party’s media-obsessed and headline-chasing past, Corbyn and his media strategists have shifted the attention away from style and image and placed the focus firmly on authenticity. Whilst this is a noble attribute to possess, and one that resulted in Corbyn winning the Labour leadership election by such a large margin, there are certain games that prospective prime ministers must play, whether they like it or not, if they are to appeal to a broad enough cross-section of voters to win an election. The ability to envisage a politician as not just the leader of a party but also of the entire nation is a vital one for voters from all walks of life. Ed Miliband’s inability to do this was one of the main reasons why he failed to lead his party to victory last year.



Due to several strange decisions and his frosty relationship with the mainstream media, Corbyn, like Miliband, is failing to win back the swing voters that Labour desperately need if they are to have any hope of returning to power in 2020. With the Conservatives rapidly gaining momentum in Scotland and former Labour voters in the north of England and south of Wales continuing to view their old party with a mixture of ambivalence and frustration, a drastic overhaul of Corbyn’s media strategy is needed, and fast, in an attempt to reach out to the sizeable section of the electorate that are sympathetic to his beliefs. Otherwise, even his own supporters may start to turn away from him.


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