An Underdog with a Strong Left Hook: Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s PR War

Somewhat ironically for a man who, up to now, had spent most of the noughties at the forefront of the Stop The War campaign (which failed to achieve its only goal), Jeremy Corbyn has proven himself a skilled warrior in the battle for the leadership of the British Labour Party.

Reviled by some, mocked by others (both within his own party), when his leadership campaign was announced, one of British politics’ final true leftists was regarded with scorn and derision in equal measure. His rivals dismissed him as a dinosaur, his Conservative opponents tried to turn him into a laughing stock, even ironically campaigning on his behalf. Yet the latest poll of Labour members has seen him shoot from 100/1 outsider to odds-on favourite with just weeks to go ahead of the vote.

So how has this unlikely figure become the most hotly-debated leadership candidate for a generation?

Well, from a public relations perspective, the answer is actually pretty simple:

By being in the right place at the right time, staying on message and never pandering to pressure.

The success of any publicity campaign hinges on establishing a point of difference between your brand and the competition. It sounds obvious, but you need to clearly define the reasons why someone should buy your product/attend your event/vote for you ahead of any of their other choices.

To this point, no other candidate can claim to have done this to the degree that would be necessary to rival Corbyn.

An Atomik Research poll this week put Corbyn firmly in the lead

An Atomik Research poll this week put Corbyn firmly in the lead

He has recognised that there is a whole generation of left-leaning voters who did not live through the dark, dare I say ‘divisive’ days of the 1980s, whose experience of Labour leaders has been nothing other than a series of dark haired, well-spoken men in well-tailored suits.

These men bare about as much resemblance to the dishevelled 66-year-old with a scraggly beard and a Bob Dylan cap who cycles to parliament and refuses to wear a tie as they do his supporters. In many ways, the Labour Left have simply been gifted a dream spokesperson for their emerging brand. Indeed, his speech from the back of a fire engine was the kind of product launch that many PR officers would kill for.

To a whole generation of 16-25 year-olds, ‘New Labour’ is the only Labour they have ever known, meaning they don’t see the leftist radical as an obsolete 1980s hangover. Far from it, for many, Corbyn represents an exciting new backlash against a weak, rudderless, Labour establishment. For others with slightly longer memories, he still represents the most constant and vocal opposition to the Blair government’s Iraq War campaign, something which he continues to wield to his advantage.

The way that Corbyn has leveraged his conflicts with Blair to drum up support has been one of the most striking and, for much of the party establishment, worrying features of this campaign.

Rightly or wrongly, there will be a strong contingent of younger voters who view Tony Blair as little more than the visual representation of one of the most unpopular military conflicts of recent years, meaning the former PM’s ‘transplant’ comments only served to further circle the leftist wagons.

With both Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper having served as ministers under Blair and Gordon Brown, and Liz Kendall heralded by many as the leading Blairite candidate, their perception of the other candidates continue to represent the New Labour old guard.

When you factor all of this disillusionment and diffidence with the rest of the Labour party following two successive election defeats, the level of surprise at Corbyn’s success so far seems quite shocking in itself.

Like with any successful publicity campaign, he and his team identified their targets early, took a firm opposing position and, as a result, became the only show in town worth watching.

But the final nail in the coffin of the PR contest came last week. Yvette Cooper’s communications team released a new batch of campaign materials to try to make up some ground ahead of polling day, featuring a photo of Cooper next to the caption:

“Who’s really radical, Jeremy or me?”

The answer to this, rather odd, question is largely irrelevant. But with less than three weeks to go until the leadership vote, with party members at each other’s throats and doubt swirling around the future of British politics, all anyone is talking about is Jeremy Corbyn.

Even the other candidates.

By Jamie Stanley


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