The media relations and crisis communication of General Election 2017 are absolutely fascinating. The Labour Party went into full crisis communication mode this week after its Draft Manifesto was leaked to two national newspapers and soon found its way on to the BBC TV News and into the rest of the media. But, strangely, the Manifesto leak may be a blessing in disguise for Labour.Last week I wrote about the astonishing ineptitude of some key Labour spokespersons, such as Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler and their urgent need for media training and better briefing and crisis management – but this leak has taken Labour’s media relations crisis into a new phase of chaos.
To my mind, there are two distinct and contrasting ways of looking at it. First, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives that the leak does not make a jot of difference. In other words Labour was going to lose big – and still is. Indeed, it is good that the Manifesto leaked because it is out earlier than planned, has received far more publicity than it would have done – including the first 20 minutes of the BBC’s Ten O’Clock last night (Thursday, 11 June 2017) – and has not been watered down by Labour’s National Executive.
The London Evening Standard reported that some Labour sources were briefing on the theory that a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s own inner-cirle had deliberately leaked the Manifesto. This sounds unlikely but a party insider allegedly told the Standard: “They’re showing the membership what Corbyn could do if only the rest of the party was behind him.”
The second way of looking at it is that it is a total PR disaster and nothing the Labour could do in crisis communication or media relations will make it better. What tiny chance Labour had of closing the gap with the Tories has been blown by this fiasco which once again illustrates the staggering incompetence of the leadership. Theresa May managed to keep her decision to call a general election under wraps until she announced it, but Jeremy Corbyn can’t even stop his Manifesto from leaking. As one candidate reportedly said: “This is absolute madness. It wasn’t even due to be released to MPs or the Clause 5 Committee until the morning, so it had to come straight from source.”
Naturally, the right-wing media supporting the Conservatives has gone into overdrive, talking about the £30billion of extra costs to deliver Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left programme of nationalisations and investment in the NHS, social care, education, public sector pay, police, tuition fees, pensions and other areas.
Indeed, the Draft Manifesto makes for glorious reading. When you have suffered for years under the greedy and incompetent fat-cat bosses of Southern, for instance, why wouldn’t you like to see the train companies brought back into public ownership? And scrapping the inflated university tuition fees is bound to be popular with younger voters and their parents. Indeed, across the board, Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda is on the face of it populist and attractive to many.
Also, and this is very rare in politics, his position has integrity. Jeremy Corbyn is a remorselessly left-wing wannabe prime minister and the leaked Manifesto is a remorselessly left-wing programme.From a crisis management or crisis communication perspective, it could not be said that he managed the leak well. It was like an episode of the classic BBC political satire The Thick of It. Because of the leak, Jeremy Corbyn did not show up for the media launch of the campaign poster, so his absence became the story. When the press did catch up with him, after a meeting to ratify the leaked Manifesto, he spoke fairly well, but then got into his car which ran over a BBC cameraman’s foot. Again, his enemies in the media, such as Daily Mail copy dynamo and funnyman Quentin Letts, were in raptures. It was even claimed by Mail Online that Labour aides had said the BBC cameraman, who broke two toes, was pretending to be injured to smear Jeremy Corbyn. You could not make it up!
Of course, matters could get even worse for Labour from hereon in. If the Shadow Cabinet and NEC do produce a watered down Manifesto, no one will be very happy about it. The lefties will be furious, having seen what could have been, and the mainstream electorate would probably vote Tory in vast numbers, having had a taste of what a Jeremy Corbyn Government would really mean. Theresa May’s lead might increase still further, although her own media performance is like a great hunk of cheese.
From the moment Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s chief media adviser was called out of a policy meeting at around 7.30pm on Wednesday (10 June 2017) to be given the news and re-entered to say “can we stop the conversation for a moment? The Manifesto has been leaked”, Labour has been tearing itself with recriminations. This is not how to handle the crisis, showing the public just how disunited the party is. Labour’s Ben Bradshaw seemed to be enraged when asked about by a BBC journalist, basically saying that Labour MPs were simply trying to hang on to their seats and that attacking Theresa May’s Manifesto was more relevant than worrying about a Labour programme that would never come to pass.
As I write, it seems even amendments to the Draft Manifesto are being leaked. It is hardly worth Labour having a Manifesto Launch now. Crisis communication specialists will pore over this general election for years to come.
* The writer is crisis communication specialist and the article is his view and not that of any organisation or other individual.