Can spin help Jeremy Corbyn?

The new Labour leader’s apparent refusal to court political convention has caused him problems this week, from run-ins with the media to rows over the national anthem. Will PR help or hinder him?

Mark Borkowski, founder and creative strategist at Borkowski

The zombie walk across Westminster bridge. The anthem anathema. The radio phone-in approach to PMQs. Not even God, it seems, could save Jeremy Corbyn. His elevation to Labour leader is playing like a reality TV show along the lines of The Only Way Is Socialism or Backbencher’s Got Talent. His victory was one of integrity of opposition against Westminster spin. He has less sheen than a dog-eared copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.

It’s anyone’s guess how sustainable this new brand of politics is. The fact that he seems un-PRable is precisely why he has most to gain from PR. Combating style in politics is, of course, its own kind of political style. Remember Saatchi & Saatchi’s attempt to turn former PM Gordon Brown’s dour persona into an ironic vote winner: “Not flash, just Gordon”? Corbyn should keep on saying what others won’t. When he cycles to work or wears cheap wellies we know it isn’t spin. He effortlessly achieves the ordinariness that all politicians strive for. With someone behind the scenes policing Corbyn against Corbynism he might be able to avoid those own goals. Help is needed to contextualise the picture he sketches.

Bidisha, broadcaster and journalist

That’s because Corbyn is having to bear weight and scrutiny from all sides: all the hopes of the left, intersected any way you like (class, race, gender, age, rural/urban, fringe/mainstream, New Labour/old red), all the hostility of the right and a media that will enjoy and exacerbate the tussle either way. Interestingly, the most thoughtful cohort here is the public. Corbyn was voted in after campaigning with a lot of popular support and a not very sophisticated PR machine. I think that hiring a spin doctor indicates that leadership has already changed him and could be a betrayal of everything he stands for.

He presents himself as the antithesis of the prevailing system of spectacular, punchy, media-attuned, individualist leadership that favours soundbites and aggression. Additionally, he’s made it clear that he wants there to be as few gatekeepers between himself, his policies and the grassroots as possible. I imagine he views spin as being politically deceptive and also rightwing in itself, coming from an Americanised, capitalist, Mad Men-era idea that anything, even a human being, can be commodified, simplified, packaged and made palatable to a populace too dim to work things out for themselves.

MB Skilfully done, spin doesn’t have to be presented as a moral climb-down. After all, protest and PR share a common aim, shaping public opinion. One puts truth to power, the other power to truth. I agree that the public are not anywhere near as unanimously hostile as the press. In the coming weeks they may even be willing to cut him some slack. There’s only so much excrement you can pour on the man in the first week before a degree of scepticism sets in.

The gap between what Corbyn says (“one option could be to give the Bank of England a new mandate to invest in housing”) and the alarmist headlines (“Corbyn in bid to turn Britain into Zimbabwe”) may not result in the raising of the red flag across middle England. But it does provide a space for a savvy spin doctor to engineer a backlash against the backlash. Arguably he’s started to do this by flagging up his patriotic credentials – more spirit of 45 than Battle of Britain – and toning down his Brexit talk. Part of the Corbyn fascination is watching this backbench wild child be exposed to the frontline. We don’t know if politics will change him. What’s for sure is, he’s already changed politics.

B If we go with your idea of anticipating and engineering “a backlash against the backlash”, we’re back to a combative mentality of offence, defence and pre-emptive striking: everything Corbyn’s against. That said, it’s interesting that there is already an air of crisis around him, as if commentators are poised for some kind of fated downfall. Only a week in, he is being depicted as a shambles, a sincere but clueless sheepdog in a world of deadly political panthers.

On paper I agree with 100% of his policies, but I maintain that there is something slippery and shockingly un-self-aware about saying you’ll make a gender equal shadow cabinet, then giving your white male chums the starring roles, then giving all the second-class jobs to the women, then saying that the jobs recognised by the entire world as being the best aren’t the best at all and we should all grow up and examine our internalised imperial, hierarchical values. It’s an odd combination of passive aggressive, holier-than-thou arrogance and sneakiness. If Corbyn thought the top jobs weren’t really the top jobs he wouldn’t have campaigned so ferociously to be made Labour leader. And how can a spin doctor possibly rebrand that hypocrisy?

MB Well, it seems they’ve found their man in the form of trade union heavy Kevin Slocombe. It’s been noted that Slocombe has deleted his Twitter account. This led to the inevitable criticism that team Corbyn is as prone to obfuscation as the establishment. There is always the two-way reputational risk when PR becomes entangled with politics – the spin doctor is as much the story, and liability as the client. Outside of the metropolitan chatterati we don’t yet know what is going to resonate with middle England and marginal seat voters.

As the apology by John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, on Question Time demonstrated, Corbyn’s movement has a powerful card to play – authenticity. This has enormous mileage, particularly with people who have come of age in the New Labour and coalition era of polyester politics. It may seem odd that two softly spoken sexagenarians could claim to have a mass youth following. Yet young people are increasingly becoming fed up with being categorised , whether it’s as consuming ‘millennials’ by middle-aged ad men or as a captive vote by manicured PPE politicians. A vote for Corbyn and McDonnell is a slap in the face to the old order.

B Authenticity as a card to play! You are spin to the core. Politics is a dirty game – that’s one thing we agree on – and Corbyn’s refusal to play along hasn’t always looked winningly authentic. It’s looked gauche. And arguably it’s not smart to be the only person in a war who’s not wearing armour. He’s learning, though, hence the appointment of Neale Coleman as his head of policy and rebuttal, as well as Kevin Slocombe (yet more additions to his all-white, all-male inner circle). But I maintain that it would be a betrayal of his self-proclaimed uniqueness as a politician if his time and attention were now caught up in regular Alastair Campbell-style briefings with these guys.

Corbyn’s whole “thing” is to be sincere and unvarnished, the opposite of Blair. Not that I actually believe he is those things. I watched the leadership announcement live and his victory speech was bold, ideologically satisfying, wide-ranging and word-perfect, because it was rehearsed. He paid lavish tribute to Harriet Harman and other Labour women once it was clear that none of them was in the frame for power, endorsed Tom Watson as “your man to bring those who don’t want to be held accountable to account”, and almost came to tears when decrying tabloid media intrusion.

He effortlessly combined strategic slickness, blokey clubbability and an appearance of off-the-cuff sincerity. And that’s not really a compliment because it hints that, really, Corbyn is the same ambitious, calculating, patriarchal hypocrite as all the others, and not any challenge to the old order, as you claim. Ultimately, Corbyn doesn’t need a spin doctor because he is clearly well able to spin himself when he wants to.


Mark Borkowski and Bidisha

The GuardianTramp

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