General Election 2017 was a rollercoaster of Public Relations cock-ups and botched attempts at Crisis Management – but also provided some notable Public Relations triumphs.
I have been avidly following general elections for more than 40 years, since the days of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, but, surprisingly, this was the first general election in which I have played an active part in campaigning for a candidate.
When the election was called, I decided to help out my local representative, Peter Kyle because I believe he has been an excellent constituency MP and was defending a majority of little more than 1,000. With the Labour Party going into the election more than 20 points behind the Conservatives, at the time there seemed every chance Peter Kyle might lose his seat.So, I started turning up for canvassing sessions, traipsing around the estates of Hangleton and streets of deepest Portslade with a team of others, asking voting preferences. It was all about mapping the Labour vote in the Hove and Portslade constituency, although I took a big interest in persuading the undecided to vote for Peter.
Public RelationsFrom a public relations and crisis management perspective, Peter seems extremely adept. He is urbane and gentle in his approach and immediately affable. His advice to new canvassers was “Be nice” because that’s what people remember.
In the first couple of weeks of the campaign, it struck me how many members of the public in Hove and Portslade said that they would usually vote Labour but were put off by Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
However, many of them could be fairly easily persuaded to vote for Peter Kyle despite Jeremy Corbyn. But I did start to wonder if my initial gut reaction that Jeremy Corbyn could turn it around in the General Election might be wrong.I had suggested, in my blog posting of 19 April 2017, that there was another way of looking at Jeremy Corbyn’s apparently hopeful prospects: “This is the general election that Jeremy Corbyn has been waiting all his political career to fight.
“Despite his parliamentary party hating him, he has hung on for dear life as party leader – just for this battle. The British public loves an underdog and, in this general election, Jeremy Corbyn is the greatest Labour underdog there ever has been in modern times. This will come across strongly in the TV coverage of him on the election war path.
“Jeremy Corbyn got himself elected as Labour Party leader – TWICE, remarkably – by being effective out on the stump, electrifying a predominantly young, idealistic vote, and bringing people of all ages who had quit Labour because it was too right-wing under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown back into the fold.
“Television and social media may prove to be the decisive media in this general election – and a fired-up Corbyn could play well on both.”
Public Relations Clangers
I also said that much would depend on the Public Relations clangers that the key players made.
Initially, of course, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron made a hash of the “sinfulness of gay sex” question posed by a Channel 4 interviewer, and Labour supposed big-hitters Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler showed their desperate need for media training and media coaching before TV and radio interviews.
But in terms of Public Relations, Jeremy Corbyn kept his nose clean. Despite a extraordinary propaganda campaign by the Daily Mail against him, with Editor Paul Dacre, who is long past his sell-by date in my opinion, suspending journalism at times to throw mud randomly at the Labour leader, he was presenting himself well – on TV and radio and, particularly, as I had predicted, at mass rallies and with direct contact with voters.
Incidentally, I think Paul Dacre has cried wolf too often in the Daily Mail, meaning his paper’s propagandist attacks no longer have credibility with readers. They certainly did not sway voters. Even Tory stronghold Kensington, where the Daily Mail is based, elected a Labour MP. Perhaps it is time for Paul Dacre to call it a day – and let the younger generation – Georgie Greig or Gerard Greaves take over as Daily Mail Editor.Back to the general election in which Prime Minister Theresa May increasingly sounded like a robot as time went on. With her Joint Chiefs of Staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill poorly advising her, Mrs May was elusive and had little to say.
The whole Tory election campaign seemed to be about her – and not the Conservative Party – and with popular Cabinet figures sidelined, the electorate soon grew sick of it. It was atrocious Public Relations and media relations – the worst I have ever seen from a major party leader.
Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – who seemed to have behaved like a couple of sweary, bullying Malcolm Tuckers out of BBC political satire The Thick Of It – had turned the Prime Minister into Maybot – with a couple of catch-phrases that soon the entire country was laughing at.
Then came the Manifestos. The Labour Manifesto was leaked, which as I wrote at the time, proved a blessing in disguise. It was packed full of attractive policies – such as providing free university education and nationalising the mismanaged railways – and, because of the leak, gained more publicity than it would otherwise have done.
Public Relations and Crisis Management
The Conservative Manifesto, rapidly thrown together by Theresa May’s tiny and blinkered inner-circle, contained PR disaster after PR disaster: Dementia Tax, cuts to children’s free school lunches, and pensioners’ fuel allowance plus a new free vote on fox hunting. Although the Daily Mail did not appear to notice at first, the Tories were in crisis management mode.
The myth of elusive Mrs May being good at PR was exposed. She had instigated this general election but then gone into hiding again, dodging both televised debates.
She just about got away with skipping the first one, but when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stepped up to the plate for the BBC1 debate, with Theresa May hiding in a wheat field or somewhere, I knew she was in deep trouble.Back in Hove, Labour candidate Peter Kyle’s campaign was going from strength to strength. Peter did a superb interview with the Brighton Argus. On the streets, he had more than 800 volunteers covering every nook and cranny of the constituency plus visits from celebrities such as Ross Kemp and Eddie Izzard plus Labour big-hitters like Iain McNicol dropping by.
I loved the campaign office in Church Road, Hove; a Labour peer might show up to help, or a young couple arrive from St Albans with their baby, offering to leaflet. A guy in a smart suit arrived from London, saying he had come to door-knock for Peter Kyle but only had a couple of hours. All the volunteers were simply incredible!Campaigning for Peter Kyle was highly addictive. I started by meandering around estates on the cusp of Sussex Downs, chatting to people about their voting intentions and worries and complimenting their pets; and before I knew it, I was plastering the windows of my car with Keep Hove Labour posters and turned my bicycle into a promotional vehicle for Peter Kyle. When people started shouting their support as I cycled past them, I knew the mood was swinging in his favour.
After the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, Theresa May’s record as Home Secretary came under fire – and Labour’s pledge to provide more police officers came into its own. May looked continually rattled. Electorally, she was almost dead in the water. She knew she was in trouble but her inner-circle lacked the public relations and crisis management know-how to turn thing around. She had made the mistake of appointing the wrong aides.
A week before the election, I started to think that we could be headed for a hung parliament and that Theresa May would have to resign.In the event, she has been allowed to continue living in Number 10 as a member of the living dead: a stuffed dummy in designer leather trousers who can choose the Downing Street curtains but decide little else. She is the Jaffa Cake Prime Minister, marching to drum beat of the DUP Orangemen – a parlous situation that is surely unsustainable.
Back in Hove, I believe Jeremy Corbyn was an asset in the end. On the doorstep, the public started showing a great enthusiasm for the Labour leader. I am convinced that Peter Kyle’s brilliant campaign would have beaten that of Kristy Adams, the feeble Tory candidate.
Kristy Adams did not really turn up and was hopeless at Public Relations. She struggled to explain her views on homosexuality and sin, and had to release a statement clarifying them – a disastrous start in a constituency in Brighton & Hove, which is rightly proud of its large BGLT community. And the closet Brexiteer would not say which way she had voted on in EU Referendum – a story the Brighton Argus splashed on its front page. This was a major misjudgment by Kristy Adams. Voters do not like to have their intelligence insulted. She also did not turned up for the Education hustings and was generally like the invisible woman, emulating her heroine, Theresa May.But ultimately, it all came together to give Peter Kyle a landslide victory, with his majority rising to more than 18,000 on a massive swing to Labour, which, sadly, came too late in the night for the national TV coverage to make a big fuss about it. I was proud to have played even a tiny part in Peter’s campaign, and believe he has a very bright future ahead of him in politics. It was also wonderful to see Labour take Brighton Kemptown, with Lloyd Russell-Moyle unseating Tory minister Simon Kirby, in another enormous swing from the Tories to Labour. And I was pleased to see left-wing Green Party leader Caroline Lucas – a fine constituency MP who really know her public relations – increase her majority in Brighton Pavilion. Maybe, one day she will be a Cabinet minister in a Labour-led coalition government.
Nationally, we are in a very interesting situation. May’s Jaffa Cake Government is unlikely to last even a year and I don’t see that she any great future ahead of her. The Tories will need to dump her sooner rather than later, but with whom should they replace her: mountebank Boris “£350million-a-week-for-NHS-claim” Johnson, the unctuous, backstabbing Gove creature, who as Environment Secretary may soon be telling farmers that their public handouts from the EU will end, or the old cracker David Davis, a man who is about as likely to win a general election as Lord Buckethead?Theresa May went into the General Election asking for a mandate for her kind of hard Brexit and Britain said no. Collectively, UK voters told her they did not want a hard Brexit at all but a very soft one instead. In Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (who I actually think is very good at public relations) wanted a mandate for a second referendum on independence. She did not get her mandate either. A second vote on independence is completely off the table now.
Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, is now a government in waiting.
After the enormous strides made during the general election, the different wings of the party need to continue to be nice to each other.
In the Labour Party, we all need to respect each other’s views and work together for the great prize of a socialist Labour Government. Jeremy needs to sharpen up his Shadow Cabinet, get them first-rate media training, teach them to take a brief – and prepare for the next general election campaign. It may not be long in coming.