Just over a week after the 2017 general election had been called, Labour held a rally in London’s east end.
It was an understated, intimate event. The venue was cosy and Jeremy Corbyn was flanked by two constituents, both party activists and personal friends, from different generations. Martha Osamor, a veteran community campaigner, and a medical student, Rohi Malik, told a story of working class life, the labour movement and Corbyn’s role within it.
“And now for a sentence I’ve yet to utter in my political life,” Corbyn said to his audience early in his speech. “Enough about you, what about me?”
In the context of a debate where his personal leadership qualities had been maligned, he offered a rigorous, historicised case for being handed the keys to No 10; working through his opposition to apartheid, his record in his community, and how he has applied consistent values to each new turn in politics.
He was honest about splits in Labour, explaining his belief that holding the space for dissent and challenge is essential for good leadership, as opposed to Theresa May’s bunker mentality. Critically, he defined leadership as a commitment to empowering others to act.
“Whereas insecure leaders want to feel stronger by asking you to give them more power, I recognise strong leadership as equipping you with more power.”
With Labour flagging in the polls and Theresa May running a campaign on her personal leadership abilities, the gambit was bold.
An even bolder personal moment came amid tragedy four weeks later, in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocity in Manchester. As campaigning was resumed a few days later, activists waited for the inevitable Conservative attack line – Corbyn’s long-standing opposition to foreign interventions and civil libertarian instincts would doubtless be used to paint him as soft on terror.
In his first speech as campaigning resumed, Corbyn met the attack head on. As well as attacking the Conservatives on reducing police numbers, Corbyn drew a lucid account of how misadventures overseas had contributed to domestic risk. Crucially, the speech was laced with quotes from authoritative figures. When the tabloid press predictably accused Corbyn of blaming the west for terrorism, they had to do so using words Corbyn had quoted from an MI5 director-general.
But there was a deeply personal angle within this approach. The wedge issue of defence and security was seen to determine one’s view of Corbyn – whether you think he’s a kind-hearted, peaceful and principled politician who believes in dialogue and reason, or a tree-hugger detached from reality whose naivete would leave Britain open to the wolves. Corbyn wasn’t just vindicating his party’s position, he was vindicating a lifetime of convictions. And he succeeded – polling indicated majority support for the speech a day later.
The personal touch.
At the same time, Labour’s communications team – which by this point included a range of new faces drawn from unions, Momentum and Corbyn’s leadership campaigns – as well as short-term contractors like leadership theorist Jem Bendell and mediator/communicator Marc Lopatin – were overseeing a careful shift in narrative. The shift was about making ordinary people agents in control of their own futures. People’s potential was being ‘held back’ by the Tories, insisted Corbyn, as opposed to previous slogans about people being ‘left behind’.
The slogan ‘for the many not the few’ may have been broad but its meaning was tightly defined by a series of policies which identified clear deserving winners and deserving losers – money to be taken from private schools’ VAT to fund free school meals for all, for instance. Labour’s pitch was rapidly becoming more relatable, and so was its leader.
“The biggest surprise of all this,” says Joe Todd, head of communications at Corbyn-supporting campaign group Momentum, “is that an election framed by the Tories as being about two individuals, strong and stable May versus Corbyn’s coalition of chaos was turned on its head twice – both because we talked about policies rather than personalities, and because his personality was an asset.”
Corbyn’s core supporters have long maintained the view that his personal qualities – his history of principled stances, his willingness to look and act different, and even the endearing charm of his knitwear, jam-making and personal warmth – were part of an anti-establishment yet friendly and personable pitch which made him a breath of fresh air.
“But that was never obvious before”, says Todd. “It became slowly clear during the campaign that Corbyn’s personality is an asset and May’s personality is a liability. He has obvious warmth and humanity, which makes him able to communicate in a way many others are unable to.”
He recalls, laughing, the recent Corbyn appearance on Gogglebox. “Having a go at the chef for not straining egg whites right; he comes across like your dad.”
Corbyn’s ‘people-powered revolution’.
Personal charm is useful. But where was Corbyn trying to stand in relation to people, and in relation to his programme? Was he a Robin Hood figure seizing the bankers’ cash to spend on hospitals? There were some well-crafted attempts to portray him as such, like the successful Corbyn Run game, inspired by a similar platform game created for French socialist presidential candidate Jean-luc Melenchon. But US-based progressive communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio thinks it’s Corbyn’s absence which is as notable as his presence.
Bernie Sanders’ ‘America ad and Corbyn’s ‘Many not the Few’ ad are remarkably similar; folksy backing music set to scenes of everyday people interspersed with mass rallies, about a minute in length and with no spoken messages. But, says Shenker-Osorio, “Bernie is very much the protagonist of this ad. The implicit story is ‘people love me.’ In Corbyn’s you see him once or twice but the voters are depicted as the heroes.”
Sanders, she says, narratively undercut his assertions about a ‘people-powered revolution’ via his protagonist role. And Hillary Clinton went a stage further with ‘I’m with her’. “The politician works for the people,” says Shenker-Osorio, posing #sheswithme as a preferable alternative. “And Corbyn is remarkable for a politician in terms of how little he says about himself.”
Corbynism has faced the ‘cult’ accusation from a raft of tabloid journalists. But without his history of understatedness and lack of a visible political ego, his “what about me” speech at the start of the campaign would have been impossible. It was an effective piece of political theatre which drew positive write-ups because it was unexpected.
Making people the campaign’s heroes wasn’t just a narrative in videos; 2017 saw Labour and Momentum engage in the mass personalisation of political communications. With hundreds of thousands of members, Labour was able to deploy an unparalleled number of canvassers to the point where on election day, entire teams were roaming the streets with nothing to do.
They were not simply political posties delivering leaflets and reminding people to vote; many had been through newly-developed Momentum persuasiveness training encouraging them to build a meaningful relationship with the voters they talked to. US author Rasmus Nielsen wrote one of the few serious contemporary works on personalised political communication several years ago, arguing that the person (ie a campaigner), as a medium, is a valuable asset and could top up a party’s vote share by up to 6% if accurately deployed.
Now Labour has recently approved the creation of a new community organising unit with over a dozen staff – an idea with its roots in the second Corbyn leadership campaign, and tested by Momentum. It’s not the only time Momentum’s work has acted as an innovation lab for the party. As Todd points out: “the grassroots movement has put pressure on the party to catch up. The distinction between Labour and Momentum has never just been about policy, but about ideas for party democracy being pushed further, new campaigning methods and different ways of doing things.”
Momentum’s mobilisation won plaudits from friends and critics alike. “In the afterglow of the election we had the best press coverage we ever have. People criticise us but now accept that we’re effective, innovative campaigners,” says Todd.
“We put lots of effort into making sure activists were told exactly what to say but that they knew how to say it, felt confident and able.”
Much of the advice given should have been obvious – listen to people and identify their key issues rather than reciting a list of policies, for instance – but where much of door-to-door canvassing had previously consisted of scripted asks and data collection, a more intimate style of persuasion marked a sea-change.
Building trust offline.
“Door-knocking was slightly nerve-wracking,” says Todd, “and seems a slightly weird thing to do.” But alongside their training, the army of canvassers had a crucial tool in the form of the manifesto. The policies in it were inspiring and commanded widespread support, but the material was also easy to understand and become familiar with, and activists could cherry-pick the most useful areas to talk about and apply the manifesto more freely in their own campaigning.
Todd explains that the basic techniques of convincing people on the doorstep are not different to those of convincing friends or workmates. “People just got it,” he says.
“There’s an ideological component to it too,” says Todd, elaborating that there is a transformative and democratising power in political persuasion being done on the ground – “even by your mate down the pub” – as opposed to solely via elite-owned newspapers, the television or impersonal literature.
Shenker-Osorio also believes the information age makes the personal touch ever more important, pointing out how even when selecting a restaurant, people are moving away from the bewildering array of online review options available and reverting to asking friends for their recommendations.
Of course this trust effect is heightened when the campaigner is a friend, acquaintance, colleague or family member; but the canvasser is far more likely to tap into this effect than an ad.
“Gone are the days when most of any public all turned to a trusted news anchor to get the evening’s report,” Shenker-Osorio says. “Further, the more deeply we enter the dark void of hoaxes, propaganda, biased reporting, information bubbles and so on, the less people trust ‘official’ reports. So now we have to rely on trusted messengers – people who we know and thus have credibility with our target audiences.”
Corbyn was much maligned by his critics for only speaking to his fan base, rather than to the persuadable middle directly. But in a world where advertisers are spending more on encouraging their core buyers to promote their products than on anything else, Shenker-Osorio argues there is a tactical as well as a moral imperative to “not just speak to the persuadable middle directly, but to fire up strong supporters to do the work for you.”
Mass campaigning presents risks; especially for those used to message control and discipline as essential parts of political communications. How do you balance a democratic, open campaign involving a huge range of strong opinions with the importance of driving home a united message? “With difficulty.” admits Todd. “But message reach is more important than message control.”
Efforts to mitigate controversy are often softer ones – during the election Momentum avoided having a distinct identity. “We didn’t put Momentum spokespeople up, we found grassroots voices to talk past the politics and get to the issues, like the NHS or housing,” Todd explains – ‘the politics” referring to the barrage of criticism Momentum had previously received from the right-wing press and the right of the Labour party.
Since the general election, Momentum has focused on campaigning rather than policy when putting activists up for interview. “We’re not a policymaking body,” says Todd. “We talk about our core themes: campaigning, engaging people, and party democracy.”
The 2017 campaign was based on penetrating personal networks, whether through viral social media videos or on-the-ground campaigning. And it put people in the driving seat more than ever before, resulting in a turnaround in Labour’s fortunes.
Where next? With the community organising unit and various other initiatives in the works, both Labour and Momentum are working to find ways to maintain the energy outside of election time and keep new activists engaged by giving them a real voice.
“The ongoing review of Labour party democracy is one way in which members can lead the leadership,” says Todd. Meanwhile Momentum’s annual festival of ideas, The World Transformed, “is a listening exercise and robust exchange of ideas – it doesn’t shy away from some of the slightly stranger ends of left-wing politics sometimes.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign was marked by the return of mass rallies to modern British politics, and his second campaign in its earliest weeks ran with the slogan ‘people-powered politics’. That slogan trenchantly sums up the approach governing the Labour left’s campaigning – mass movement building which also recognises the importance of individual, personal interaction within that movement.
Momentum groups are now holding events from disco nights to five-a-side matches alongside canvassing or political education sessions. While the Conservatives appear more distant and faceless than ever, Labour – whether through the force of Corbyn’s personal appeal or through a political strategy recognising the personal appeal of friends and neighbours – is attempting to revive a more intimate form of politics for the modern age.
The project is incomplete, and bears no shortage of contradictions, challenges or internal critics. But, warts and all, it’s one of the things most clearly marking out ‘the new politics’ from what went before.