After three days of discontent, Keir Starmer finally publicly apologised on Easter Monday for his visit to Jesus House. Perhaps it would be easy to leave things there. But it would be a mistake. The fallout from his visit to the anti-LGBT church, and the party’s failure to shut down the story, revealed weaknesses across the board in the Opposition leaders’ office (LOTO) – weaknesses that need fixing, fast. On Sunday, Starmer told the Observer that he is putting the Labour Party “on notice” for an early general election in May 2023. On the evidence of this weekend, his own office is ill-prepared for one.
To begin with, the vetting operation in LOTO is clearly not up to scratch. A visit to a church that generated the same criticisms when Theresa May visited in 2017 should have been caught beforehand – an error so glaring many speculated whether LOTO’s choice to visit a church with a rep for homophobia was deliberate, given a “simple Google search” should have been enough to find it.
The problem, however, is that before this weekend a simple Google search wouldn’t have quickly unearthed May’s negative press: Prince Charles and Boris Johnson have each visited since, without generating such stories. That the vetting team did not do a more extensive search represents incompetence on their part. But it also exposes a vetting process that is not fit for purpose.
The party scrapped its fabled bespoke rapid rebuttal Excalibur system during the New Labour years on the basis that existing clippings services, such as LexisNexis, did the same job more cheaply. However, such services are notoriously expensive themselves, running into the thousands of pounds annually, so a hard-up party cancelled these subscriptions post-2010, presumably on the basis that Googling was ‘good enough’. This weekend shows why a proper rapid response system – that could have instantly flagged the risk of visiting Jesus House – is worth investing in. If a perhaps overstretched office couldn’t find the problem instantly ahead of an Easter weekend, what’s to say the same wouldn’t happen during a general election campaign? Floated plans for an ‘Excalibur 2’ app need expediting: urgently.
Vetting is not the only issue highlighted by the weekend’s events. LOTO is simply not on top of its comms operation. Starmer’s public apology and withdrawal of the video was good and welcome. But it should have been sent out on Saturday: the instant the visit and the reaction to it became a Guardian news story.
In apologising privately to LGBT+ Labour but not apologising publicly on the day; in not responding to communications from the party’s internal LGBTQ staff network, after similarly ignoring a letter from the group regarding concerns over the rhetoric used by MP Rosie Duffield; in briefing lines to shadow minister Rachel Reeves for Sky News that implicitly contradicted any private apology given to LGBT+ Labour – in all these ways, the LOTO comms team allowed the story to rumble on over the weekend, generating even more ill-will.
Public Relations 101 for any story of this kind is to publicly apologise immediately and get all the information out, shutting it down before it can become anything more. If Starmer’s comms team don’t grasp this basic lesson – one any PR professional could tell them – they aren’t up to the job. If they made this much of a meal of a scandal on home ground, how would they fare with one that came up with the Tories firing on all cylinders?
This is part of a broader problem – the growing discontent over the party’s comms and messaging strategy. Put simply, the Labour Party doesn’t currently have message discipline – it just has discipline. Shadow ministers complain they “can’t so much as break wind without clearing it with the party press office first”, with one saying to The Times that they’d “spent most of the last three weeks trying to find out what the f*** our message is.” No doubt, after the relative anarchy of the Corbyn years when backbenchers and shadow ministers felt free to go on the airwaves and contradict the leadership at will, some sense of order was needed. But order is pointless if the party doesn’t have a message to go with it, not least during a set of local elections.
All too regularly Starmer is going out and announcing new stances, such as opposing vaccine passports, to the press himself. But given the lack of impact these increasingly frequent scattershot appearances are having, it raises a question over what the point of them is. Peter Mandelson was fond of remarking that “It is only when you’re sick of hearing yourself repeat the same message over and over again that people are just starting to hear it” – as evidenced by the success Boris Johnson had in debates while verging on parody with his repetition of “taking back control” and “getting Brexit done”. Without a simple line (a noun! a verb! “the Tories are cutting real terms pay for nurses”!) repeated ad infinitum by the leader and shadow ministers in every media opportunity we get, LOTO’s discipline is being wasted.
It also doesn’t help that LOTO’s comms team isn’t putting much focus on outreach to friendly journalists, nor on the task of cultivating outriders that can explain the party’s strategy on the airwaves. It’s creating an impression that Labour under Starmer is rudderless. Because LOTO isn’t keeping those friendly to the project in the loop on plans it already has in process, Starmer is currently failing to get credit for planned media hits, and is treated as being a step behind the curve by broadcasters and political correspondents, who pay close attention to commentator opinion.
A lack of outriders means Labour commentary slots on shows like the Daily Politics and Newsnight are still being taken by Novara-type veterans of the Corbyn era who are not friendly to the current leadership: during opportunities to get the party’s message across, viewers are instead seeing the leader criticised. And while there are benefits to not being terminally online, LOTO’s vacuum of a social media strategy means an increasingly important arena – one crucial media players also keep tabs on, and which moves at a much more unforgiving pace – is too often left entirely to its opponents.
It is becoming clear that the leader’s office is understaffed and underskilled – perhaps little surprise for one hired largely based on loyalty during Starmer’s leadership campaign and time as shadow Brexit secretary. These aren’t unfixable problems, and they’re eminently solvable in the space of two years.
But unless action is taken fast, Labour runs the risk of underperforming in a bumper set of local elections, which will set the tenor for a crucial year as we come out of lockdown and the public starts to take a closer look at the party under more normal political conditions. It would be a mistake to just move on and ignore the lessons of this weekend: because on this evidence, LOTO – let alone the Labour Party – is not in a fit state to fight an election any time soon.