Jeremy Corbyn’s democratic socialism is now standing at the dispatch box in Westminster and his rivals have gone on the offensive. The anti-Corbyn narrative has been set into motion and his branding is well under way. If Corbyn and Labour are to weather the storm over the coming months, they must diligently control their own image, embrace a reductionist view of politics and surprise people.
I was speaking to a friend from America a few days ago and he struggled to understand why the Conservative party didn’t walk the 2015 election. Look at it from an “outsider’s” perspective; the UK Economy is in it’s 3rd year of recovery, inflation is low, unemployment is continuing on its downwards path and David Cameron is popular (enough) with the electorate. Surely, he argued, the prerequisites of a certain re-election were established. However, what he had failed to consider is the power of a party’s brand (when I say brand I refer to its reputation). A party’s brand is fundamental in its ability to swing votes and it essentially rests on two questions:
1) How is your party’s values perceived by the public?
2) Do people feel it fits with their own values?
Labour has always been insurmountably ahead of the Conservatives in terms of brand power and loyalty. The Conservatives have battled with brand toxicity since the 1970s, which reached fever pitch under Major in the 1990s and still today, in many areas of the UK, particularly Scotland, London and Birmingham, is yet to prevail. People still see voting Tory as countercultural. Labour on the other hand, with its close ties with the Unions, have just about managed to maintain their brand as being the “party of workers”. This has often been Labour’s saving grace. I would posit the argument that the power of brand Labour kept them in contention at the 2015 election, despite the Conservatives exhibiting all prerequisites of certain electoral success. However, over the coming months the Labour brand is going to face an onslaught which it hasn’t felt since the 1980s whilst at the same time the Conservatives endeavour to rebrand as the party of “working Britain”.
The art of branding is to cement a negative narrative of your opponent as early as possible, before they can dictate their own. With the foundations set, the right can control how others perceive. They are inevitably going to brand Corbyn as extreme, left wing, agitprop and revolutionary. Not 24 hours after the leadership result, David Cameron tweeted “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security”. Michael Fallon reinforced this message on breakfast TV proclaiming Jeremy Corbyn “is now a threat to your family”. The Conservatives have smelt blood and are on the attack. They are denouncing their opponent as being a threat to the British people. A tactic they used with Ed Miliband and Michael Foot.
It is not just the Conservatives who have engaged first gear. Nicola Sturgeon (leader of the Scottish National Party) took immediate action to denounce Corbyn, claiming via Twitter that if he was unable to establish himself as a credible future prime-minister, the Scottish people would conclude the only way to get rid of the Tories would be to vote yes in another referendum. A cunning tactic from the leader of a party who wants Scottish independence.
Corbyn’s ascension up the party, offers Labour the opportunity to rebrand itself, and the left will want him to turn the page on New Labour. I urge Corbyn to embrace a reductionistic view of politics and surprise people. He must say things which are counter to what people expect him to say. By adding the element of surprise he cannot be so easily pigeon holed.
If Corbyn can ride the imminent storm and control his brand, then himself and the Labour party have a chance.
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