Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer

Labour Party PR: Political Marvels and Mishaps

British politics. It’s like a real-life soap opera. A theatrical spectacle full of drama, treachery and scandal, with heroes, villains and plot twists that keep the nation hooked.

In the current series, the Labour party, led by Sir Keir Starmer, are centre stage, challenging Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in a battle of wits. Their actions are closely scrutinised, and every word has the potential to propel them to glorious new heights or flush them down the proverbial toilet in the public opinion polls.

In order to survive, politicians need to be thick-skinned. But resilience alone is not enough to succeed. Public relations plays a critical role.

Luckily for the Labour Party, Boris and the Tories have been living a seemingly never-ending PR nightmare over the past year. But Labour have suffered plenty of public relations mishaps themselves, from which we can learn many lessons.

So, let’s dive into some of the best and worst in Labour public relations.

Good Labour Party PR: For the people

Dominic Cummings at Select Committee

When Conservative senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, was found to have broken lockdown rules in 2020, Labour pounced on the opportunity to attack. They stood in the corner of voters, saying that ‘the British public do not expect there to be one rule for them and another for Dominic Cummings.’

This is a truth everyone can get on board with. The fiasco resulted in a drop in support for the Conservatives and a fortuitous boost for Labour.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Tories gifted Labour with another PR own goal, by way of the ‘partygate scandal‘, which saw the government break their own lockdown rules by holding a series of social gatherings in 2020/21, while the rest of the country was stuck at home following said rules.

Unsurprisingly, there was a massive backlash from the press and public, with Starmer accusing the prime minister of ‘taking British people for fools.’

There was a police investigation that resulted in fines for Prime Minister Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. What followed was calls from all directions for both to resign – with the loudest voice being that of Labour Party leader, Starmer.

PR Takeaway

More often than not, PR involves emphasising the good qualities of your brand. However, as mentioned, a common political PR strategy is to highlight the flaws of your rivals.

This is called, ‘negative campaigning’ or ‘mudslinging’, where the goal is to decrease the attractiveness of your opposition and dissuade the public from voting for them. It’s an effective PR strategy because our brains are more responsive to negative information – but it comes with risks.

If you throw mud at your rivals, you can expect mud back in retaliation. So you’d better be sure you’re clean as a whistle (or up for a big ol’ dirty mud fight) before you go down that route.

And on that note…

Bad Labour Party PR: People in Glass Houses

As the saying goes: ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’

Keir Starmer does not live in a glass house but his offices have glass windows, through which he can be seen.

And seen he was, gathered with friends, beer in hand, whilst lockdown rules were in place. Who doesn’t love a good plot twist?

Having berated the Conservatives for breaking regulations, photographic evidence surfaced of Sir Keir himself attending a social gathering that, from the outside looking in, went against social distancing rules. Oops.

Starmer denied any wrongdoing, claiming ‘rules were not broken’, but he did vow to resign if he received a fine for the gathering. He had no other option really. In order to maintain his and the Labour Party’s credibility, he had to accept the same treatment as his opponents.

However, note the strategic wording of his statement in response to the scandal. He said that he would resign if he was fined. He did not say he would resign if he was found to have broken the rules.

As it turns out, the police in Durham (the ‘work event’ location) were lenient in issuing fines for Covid rule-breaking, so the probability of Starmer receiving a fine is unlikely.

Starmer’s response was intended to make him out to be a man of principle. The reality is he messed up and dodged a bullet, and the British public could see through it. Keir is lucky that the rule breaking on the Conservative side of the bench was larger in number and more interesting to the British press.

PR Takeaway

Pot, kettle, black, anybody?

Although the situation wasn’t catastrophic for Labour, it was not a good PR moment. The big public relations lesson here is: If you’re going to take the moral high ground, make sure the ground beneath your feet is sturdy.

For more on minimising damage to your public image, read: Boohoo: PR Pioneers and Scandal Survivors

Good Labour Party PR: A time and a place

Coronovirus Testing Centre

Labour loves to draw attention to the shortcomings of their rivals, but they know when to hold back on the attack for the greater good, as was the case in 2020.

As the government, along with the rest of the world, tried to get to grips with the impact of Covid-19 ripping across the globe, Labour understood the severity of the situation and were respectful and empathetic in their role as opposition.

A truce, albeit an unspoken and temporary one, was the right move considering the magnitude of the situation. Scathing attacks towards the Tories during this period would not have benefitted the party, so a softly-softly approach was sensible.

PR Takeaway

Read the room. Sometimes there are more important things going on.

Labour did a good job in recognising the need for a ceasefire. By uniting with their rivals against a common enemy (in this case, Covid), they showed compassion and respect. Qualities rarely seen in the political arena.

Bad Labour Party PR: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Angela Rayner, Labour’s Deputy Leader, is well known for touting her working-class roots. She’s open about being brought up on a council estate in Stockport, leaving school at 16 with no qualifications and getting pregnant as a teenager.

She has had to defend herself against criticism of her accent and lack of basic grammar knowledge. She’s faced sexist claims that she crosses and uncrosses her legs during Prime Minister’s Questions to distract Boris Johnson and throw him off his game.

You can look at much of the critique aimed at Rayner as unfair. The product of being a working-class woman in a playground that favours rich men with prestigious lineages.

However, during a 2022 podcast interview in front of a live audience, Mrs Rayner landed herself in a public relations nightmare that left even her Labour party pals unable to defend her.

‘On things like law and order I am quite hard line. I am like, shoot your terrorists and ask questions second’ she said to the stunned audience.

The comments led to a backlash from many, including former Labour shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott. She tweeted: ‘Is Angela suggesting a mandatory death sentence for suspected (but not convicted) ‘terrorists?’

In response to the comments, many were quick to point out how that type of policing is what led to the death of the Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, who was mistaken for a suicide bomber and shot dead in a south London Tube station in 2005.

Whether her remarks were intentional or an accidental slip of the tongue in a moment of insanity, it was a bad Labour PR move and left many of the party’s supporters feeling uneasy.

PR Takeaway

Think before you speak, as words matter. What you say and how you say it requires forethought to prevent PR disasters.

Even if you hold certain opinions, some views are best left unshared, especially when you’re in a high profile position where everything you say has the potential to be used against you.

This is the case with Angela Rayner, who should have bitten her tongue. What she said is at best hurtful and insensitive, and at worst, dangerous.

Good Labour Party PR: Corbyn, the Hero of the Youth

Before Starmer took the Labour leadership reins, Jeremy Corbyn attempted to unseat the Tories from government. He was a different kind of leader to what we had become used to, and one that rubbed a lot of voters up the wrong way.

However, there was one key demographic that was fully behind Corbyn becoming prime minister: young people. Specifically students and those in the 18-34 age bracket.

With Britain’s youth backing him, it seemed Labour was set to win the 2017 general election. This didn’t happen, but Labour performed better than many expected, and the support from young people remained strong into the 2019 election.

But how did Jeremy Corbyn manage to rally the youth in such large numbers? With good old-fashioned Labour Party public relations. And the promise of free Wi-Fi.

In the run-up to the 2017 general election, the Labour Party PR strategy involved working with social media influencers to target young voters. Jeremy Corbyn had the support of musicians like Stormzy and Rag’n’Bone man, making him appear ‘cool.’

In addition to making the most of celebrity endorsements, Labour went all-in on social media. Corbyn’s social media following reached levels significantly higher than any of the other party leaders – amassing 1.5m followers across Facebook and Twitter.

Corbyn’s ability to engage young people in politics is something to be applauded. Many before him had struggled to win the youth vote. So that’s a Labour public relations win. Even though they didn’t win the election in 2017 and failed in 2019 too.

For another great example of effective influencer marketing, read: ASOS PR: How the Online Brand Boosted Its Reputation And Profits.

PR Takeaway

Getting an endorsement from someone popular is a tried and tested PR tactic. Riding the coat tails of an influencer to elevate your social status is not an original idea, but it’s a smart one. Especially in the age of social media. It’s the easiest way in which to reach the younger generations.

That said, social media is just one of many great PR tools. A good PR strategy doesn’t rely on one communications avenue, but multiple, diverse channels. And a large social media following does not guarantee customers – or in Labour’s case, voters.

Interested in learning how to use a variety of communication channels? Read: How to Create A Brand Communication Strategy.

Bad Labour Party PR: What Weapons of Mass Destruction?

In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush took the United States to war with Iraq. Tony Blair, the Labour Party leader and British prime minister at the time, followed suit. And he stood by his American counterpart and dragged Britain into what turned out to be one of the biggest political mistakes in recent history.

Blair justified getting involved in the conflict because of intelligence that led to the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. However, the intelligence was flawed, and that belief was proved to be wrong.

Labour issued an apology in 2016, stating that joining the war was a ‘disastrous decision.’ But the apology was 13 years too late. The war in Iraq had far-reaching, long-lasting negative effects on government decision-making and public trust in military intelligence.

An epic Labour PR fail and absolutely devastating for the families that lost loved ones.

PR Takeaway

We all make mistakes. But sometimes, the decisions we make have a significant impact not just on ourselves, but those around us.

The conflict in Iraq was controversial at the time and remains so to this day. The legacy of the war is an economic crisis, energy shortages and violence, and the public image of former Labour leader, Tony Blair, has been tarnished forever.

What remains is a valuable PR lesson. Think about the consequences of your actions and your words before making a big decision. It could save you from a decades-long public relations headache.

Moving forward

A brief look at some of the best and worst in Labour Party public relations. They don’t always get it right, but then nobody does – especially in politics.

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