THE BLOG

Diane Abbott's LBC Interview Isn't Labour's Biggest Problem - How They Handled The Aftermath Is

03/05/2017 08:25 BST | Updated 03/05/2017 08:26 BST
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

My first thought listening to Diane Abbott's LBC interview on Tuesday was that she was having a stroke. A Tory mate of mine had gleefully sent it to me, ostensibly as proof of Labour's total and complete inability to form articulate sentences, let alone a credible government. The interview was as awful as you can possibly imagine - I mean so bad that Natalie Bennett's 2015 interview looks like a political masterclass in comparison - but, I thought, not necessarily fatal. After all, Abbott had done several interviews prior talking about Labour's policing policy and was perfectly coherent - and, as The Guardian reports, factually accurate.

This is a point she repeatedly made later in the day on the Daily Politics, one that is perfectly valid but did not do much to satiate presenter Jo Coburn's appetite for destruction. This isn't a slight against Coburn; she did a fantastic job grilling both Diane and Tory minister Dominic Raab. But it does underpin the fact that this is exactly the kind of cockup that Labour can ill afford right now - one that plays directly to the Tory line that they're too incompetent to govern.

Controlling the narrative in such instances requires owning the narrative, and to own the narrative you have to own the gaffe. Had Labour had a communications staff worth their salt, Diane would have gone on the Daily Politics and said something like this: "You know what Jo? You're absolutely right. It was an embarrassing interview and I regret that I was not as articulate, accurate, or concise as I ought to have been. I only hope the British people can be understanding - after all, these things happen to all of us at some point - and that we can get back to talking about the 20,000 police officers we've lost under the Tories, or that rather than balance the budget they've driven up the national debt. That's what I'll remember, and that's what the electorate will remember on the 8th of June."

Boom. Conversation ended, because what else is there to say? You've admitted the mistake, asked for understanding, and pivoted onto your talking points.

Diane didn't do that. Instead, she doubled-down, acting as if Jo Coburn was bang out of line for asking the questions the entire nation wanted answers to - chiefly, how could you not know the figures for your own policy? At a moment when a little humility and humour would have served her wonders, Diane went on the defensive.

It's easy to understand why. As I've previously written, Diane Abbott is routinely subjected to unfair, often racist, abuse on social media and in the press. It's not surprising she felt the need to defend herself against accusations that she doesn't know her brief. (She does, and she'll make a damn good Home Secretary.) After all, she's had to defend herself against accusations she's "overrated" or a "diversity hire" for years. She knows this game all too well.

Still, you have to play the game to win the game. For the past couple of years, Labour hasn't even been trying to curry favour with the press, nor have they seemed to care much about how their operation is perceived, placing ideology over image and assuming the electorate will, too. For many grassroots activists and even those in the party apparatus, this is a badge of honour, a sign that they are being real and honest with the public. To the rest of us, it's a hot mess.

Optics matter. Like it or not, the mainstream media is still the way most people get their news, and so what they're saying about you matters immensely. Corbyn and his allies - Diane Abbott included - clearly know this because they constantly whinge about the coverage they receive. Yet they seem patently incapable or unwilling to change, failing to see that part of the fault lies with them. It certainly did today.

Don't waive Mao's Little Red Book in the air. Don't call Hitler a Zionist - in fact, don't bring Hitler up at all. And don't forget the figures for the policy you're meant to be rolling out. If you do happen to cite a madman's magnum opus, praise the most evil man in history, or forget the entire point of your interview, apologise - even if you don't think you've anything to be sorry for. Being right doesn't matter. Getting the story out of the headlines does.

There's still (dear Lord) five weeks before the election, which means five weeks of campaigning and five weeks of gaffes. It's clear that Labour doesn't have an effective media strategy, if they have one at all. If Labour ever hopes to cut through the media bias and slash the Tory's lead, they're going to have to bring their A game. That means no more disasters like Diane's interview today, but more importantly no more doubling-down on them.

I truly think that the British people would like what Jeremy Corbyn has to say, if only they could hear him say it over the sound of his own implosion. The problem isn't the message, it's the messengers. That's actually good news, because it means they can improve. It's time to polish the turd and start playing the media's game so that Labour can win this election.