An Ed Miliband communications 101

Or, how to avoid car crash radio interviews.

Have a listen to the opening few seconds of Ed Miliband’s 5 Live interview from earlier this week and you learn everything you need to know about his communication problems. And he doesn’t even have to open his mouth.

Firstly, Ed, or those around him, likes to look clever. Academic. Statesmanlike. How fabulous the phrase “Patriotic Industrial Activism" must have looked on paper, how grandiose, the words of an intellectual.

There is a place for such language. It’s usually in some sort of scholarly paper. It’s not mid morning on 5 Live.

Secondly, how long would it take you to answer that question, to explain "Patriotic Industrial Activism" in plain English? Personally, I would have said “Buy British". Slightly facile perhaps, a little over simplistic -- but nevertheless, plain English.

Ed takes 53 seconds to answer. After which, frankly, most people were none the wiser.

I’ve a funny feeling that Ed and the folk around him feel that giving succinct answers using everyday language may be patronising listeners, selling them short. They’re wrong. To my mind it’s language that’s been Ed Miliband’s biggest obstacle in connecting with the public.

David Cameron totally gets this. I’m often struck by Cameron’s use of everyday language to get his message home.

A great example was when he was informing the House of Commons that he had authorised the use of force in Libya, through air strikes. Can there be any more serious subject on which a prime minister addresses the House? I suspect Ed would have said something like “I have judged that it would be prescient at this juncture to intervene to avoid further humanitarian distress."

Cameron didn’t. He said “We’ve acted in the nick of time".

There is a certain irony in the old Etonian using the language we all use on a daily basis to connect with the population at large (in order to downplay his not-of-our-world ness), while the leader of the Labour Party feels the need to talk like a university professor, nervous that otherwise folk won’t think he’s up to the job.

We know Ed isn’t a natural communicator -- who will ever forget his interviews on the public service sector strikes -- but it’s his inability to touch a common nerve that is at the root of so many of his problems. All the abuse he gets throughout the rest of the interview has almost nothing to do with policy, positioning or belief. It’s all based on an assessment that people don’t think he gets it, or isn’t up to the job.

They are not rejecting his intellectual position -- they’re not getting that far.

Most people would grasp the basic tenet of his argument if he said “Buy British". They’re probably not going to spend a great deal of time interrogating the nuanced subtleties of “Patriotic Industrial Activism".

And you cannot sell to a man who isn’t listening.

 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.