(You can also read this post in the Huffington Post, here)
The excitable and ubiquitous coverage of ‘labour boy’ Rory Weal following his appearance at the Labour Party Conference on Monday said a lot about the power of narrative. From Melanie Philips’s enraged dismissal of his ‘mantra of hate’ in the mail to the Guardian’s moving video content, everyone found something to grab them about this 16 year old child of the welfare state turned political prodigy.
It’s hardly a surprise: his back story looked pitch-perfect. Following a divorce two and a half years ago, his family home was repossessed and he was cared for by his mother alone: despite her suitably hardworking yet appealingly lowly job as a cleaning supervisor, his ravaged family required a leg up. They aren’t TV Guzzling, lazy tabloid welfare bugbears, yet Rory stated categorically that ‘I owe my wellbeing and that of my whole family to the welfare state’.
Now he’s working to develop his socialist creds: an interview published in the Times on Wednesday was a total spinmeister’s wet dream. In it, he name checks The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (his ‘call’, in narrative theory terms) in the same breath as extolling almost calculatedly ordinary clothing brands like Primark (where he bought his tie) and Tesco (the suit: ‘great buy’, says Rory). He stresses that his less extraordinary friends are issues driven, too, but acknowledges, humorously, that the issues which drive them involve the ‘trebling of their bus fare’ rather than ‘party politics’. His favourite programme is Question Time, but he despairs, affectionately, of his mother, who won’t stay up to watch it.
In short, he’s a poster boy for Labour’s intended, newly leftist stance. His narrative could have been calculated to ensure that, when he delivered his impassioned and graceful speech, it would provoke the maximum excitement on the left and disruption and rage on the right.
In this, we find the first point to be made: if all this good work is to stick, Labour better be damn sure his narrative continues to ring true. Unfortunately for them, the first cracks appeared on Wednesday, with a piece in the Mail ‘outing’ him as a former private school pupil with a well to do, property developer Dad serving as a counterpoint to the Times piece. There was even a quote from his Gran which must have had the scribbler who got it crying tears of joy: ‘it’s really the first time we’ve heard about his interest in politics. We were surprised because we thought he wanted to go into something like acting’.
It’s telling to study why the right would particularly love to discredit this kid. Weal’s speech commanded the power it did because it acknowledged something which the rest of Labour’s somewhat airbrushed and over-handled conference did not. As any truly intelligent communications professional could tell you, there has to be a place where PR ends.
Rory Weal became this place. Ed Miliband has been PR’d to within an inch of his life. Granted he looks like someone who should be locked up in the back coding room of a second-tier games developer, but that’s no reason to shine and inflate him so much he turns into a sort of pumped-up, speechmaking sex doll. Rumour has it he even sought advice on his inaugural wave. Take the truth out of Weal, and you take any momentum Labour have gained from this conference away in an instant.
Weal grabbed headlines because he was not thrust forward, presented, positioned (or least did not appear to be) and paradoxically he stood out for it. If he is the real deal, he will be the ultimate example of the power of the truthful brand narrative. If not, British politics will receive a swift and decisive demonstration of what happens when PR tries to build itself.