Jeremy Corbyn goes from clinging on to gripping the Labour party by the neck. Forget the Revenant this year’s great survival story belongs to the softly spoken radical for Islington North. A year in to the experiment, and two successful leadership contests later, we know any attempt to school the ragged trousered socialist in the ways of media handling and spin would be to defy a force of nature. But, vice versa, could there be any PR lessons for us to glean from Corbyn’s endurance?
Nestled in the latest PR Week dispatch from the Labour party conference there is a tantalising revelation that many of the attending PR folk have been expressing an interest in the Corbyn cult that is Momentum, which is holding its own gathering simultaneous to Labour’s annual shindig. The image of besuited public affairs consultants dropping business cards into the canvas sling bags of bearded old Trots is amusing but could be the sign of stranger things to come.
PR professionals have long been in awe of mass movements, particularly when they are young and digitally networked. Somehow a 67 year old man lacking in almost all the recognisable skillsets for a twenty-first century political force (as The Times’s Patrick Kidd commented, has there ever been a demagogue so unlikely to agogue a demos?) has managed the defy a Europe-wide 30 year trend in declining party membership by bringing literally hundreds of thousands of people into Labour. Whatever you think of his politics or wider appeal, this is an achievement.
Where previously the comms consultants would shun the fringes, now they scramble to a variety of silos in our fractured politics. The old division of left and right had broken down long before the EU referendum; the plebiscite served only to underline the inadequacy of this binary division. Spare a thought for BBC news – no longer can they book a Labourite and a Tory and guarantee balance. How would you like your Labour MP: hard left, soft left or a moderate? For the Conservatives we have Brexiteers and Europhiles, but what of all the shades in-between?
Although the FPTP voting system is unlikely to change anytime soon the future of parliamentary parties is still in doubt. Major splits are unlikely but already we are seeing the emergence of a shadow network of intra and cross party alliances that are arguably more aligned with the politics of the public. In July Paddy Ashdown launched the “political start up” More Untied that aims to bring together politicians blue, red and orange under the banner of liberal values. Meanwhile you have UKIP donor Aaron Banks funding a working class anti-immigration movement to rival Labour- a party that itself cannot decide whether it wants Momentum or Progress.
While the benefits to democracy of political stratification have yet to be seen one thing is for sure: it is a good time for PR agencies keen to grab a share in the market.