As Brexit talks between Labour and Conservatives splutter on, the key advisors of Corbyn and May might be looking around the dingy and airless room they are occupying in Westminster and asking themselves how they ever got to this. A clue may lie in their respective leaders’ inabilities to communicate visions that engage and connect with the electorate.
The dawn of Tony Blair’s New Labour era cast new standards for the art of political communication. A telegenic leader, supported by sharp and innovative political operatives in the likes of Alastair Campbell and Lord Mandelson. As a nation, we were witnessing a new type of politician who was just as comfortable being snapped eating ice creams by the beach as he was hosting major international summits.
When the key fob for Number 10 changed from red to blue, David Cameron seemed to follow the New Labour textbook word-for-word. Yes, his PR offensive had become gradually subtler since his husky-hugging days, but the former PM was no stranger to camera crews in the kitchen and burger-flipping in the Downing Street garden.
But things have since changed. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have adopted sober and serious approaches to their communication operations that are a far cry of their predecessors’.
Up to the point until she became prime minister, Theresa May’s communications objective was always to be perceived as a ‘tough as nails’ safe pair of hands. Photographs of her flanked by police officers and delivering hard truths about the Conservatives being known as the ‘nasty party’ were hallmarks of her brand. But that all changed during the General Election in 2017. Under scrutiny, she was characterised in a wholly different way. According to polls, the over-riding feeling of the public towards the PM was that of sympathy. Although not negative, it juxtaposed her previous public persona which led to cries of inauthenticity.
Corbyn, on the other hand, has put authenticity at the very centre of his communications strategy. For many years, political leaders put up a barrier between themselves and the electorate. Not Corbyn. He tended to an allotment and cycled to work; no airs or graces here. Corbyn’s challenge always lay in his need to defend a parliamentary record that began in the early-80s. Occasionally grouchy and short-tempered with the press, Corbyn has been unable to win over the media in the way that Tony Blair did. Rather than woo the mainstream media, Corbyn’s strategy has been to make position them as his enemy, whilst communicating directly with voters through his popular social media channels.
So how did we get here? There’s a number of causes to this lull in the standard of political communication.
The first is weariness. After nearly two decades of highly-polished PR performers holding political office (despite a brief respite during Gordon Brown’s tenure) the British public were crying out for more authenticity. While photo opps and TV interviews are a normal part of public life in 2019, neither Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn are known for their warmth or closeness to the media.
A number of scandals, including phone-hacking and ‘fake news’ have meant that public trust in journalists is now on par with estate agents. Whether it’s the politicians who have sought to distance themselves from cosy relationships with the media, or the other way round, one thing is for sure; the public have grown weary of the flirting and courting that went on between the political and media elites.
Or perhaps this decline in the quality of political communications is down to the gravitas of the political situation our leaders are grappling? Brexit has brought Westminster to a gridlock and polarised political debate. Put simply, now is not the time for fun and cheerful PR stunts. Being stuck on a zipwire during the hijinks of the Olympics was probably a good idea to grab a few kooky headlines. Try something similar whilst we’re in the middle of the navigating Brexit and you’ll be accused of irreverence of the highest degree.
With 70% of voters identifying Brexit as the most important issue facing the country, they expect adult and statesmanlike behaviour from their leaders in these trying times.
And finally, perhaps social media has played its role in dampening the quality of political communication we see today. During the Blair and Cameron eras, the media landscape demanded that politicians reached across the aisle to appeal to voters who weren’t immediate supporters of their respective parties. Social media has changed that. Now, politicians can target their natural voters with laser-like precision, meaning they no longer need to present a shiny, PR-friendly sheen to boost their electoral arithmetic.
The dominance of social media has seen the barriers that existed between politicians and voters removed. Once revered and respected, politicians today are fair game for social media users searching for their next scalp. As an audience, we are more sceptical than ever about what politicians say, leading to a degree of cautiousness and stasis from political communicators.
Whatever the cause, the catalyst of this ‘dark age’ in political communication has less to do with the politicians and more to do the public. May and Corbyn’s teams are doing what all good communicators do; reacting to the mood music of their audience.
Time will tell whether the halcyon days of political communication return, or whether we, as an electorate, have fundamentally different expectations for how political leaders should interact in this day and age.
Kevin Craig is the CEO of political communications agency PLMR