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22 May 2024

The Labour PR gold rush has begun

The banks, lobbyists and public relations firms are all lining up to cash in on a Keir Starmer premiership.

By Will Lloyd

“His values are like our rivers,” Tom Baldwin sagely explained to Nick Robinson and Amol Rajan recently on The Today Podcast, “which bend into the folds of a landscape.” The lads were discussing Sir Keir Starmer in terms that might have been improved. Generally, rivers tend to find the path of least resistance. And these days British rivers tend to stink with sewage.

Nobody, at least not consciously, was suggesting that Starmer is full of shit. You can excuse Baldwin for being a bit knackered. As the only decent biographer of Starmer, he has been doing the rounds as the explainer-in-chief of “Keir the man” to the UK media for several months. He does a good job, even when fielding unanswerable and somewhat inane questions such as, “Who is the real Keir Starmer?”

Still, the former journalist and Labour spin doctor’s sudden and startling ubiquity on podcasts and think-tank panels makes Baldwin representative of British politics today. This moment is a Labour gold rush. Everybody knows Starmer is the next prime minister. Banks, lobbying groups and PR firms are adjusting their sights accordingly.

They all need their equivalent of Tom Baldwin. Almost any connection with the Labour Party, whether it is solid (in Baldwin’s case) or utterly tangential, can be exchanged for clout, and, more importantly, cash. If you know the difference between Tony Crosland and Richard Crossman, if you have ever considered naming your male child after Keir Hardie, and if you ever so much as sneezed in the same conference room as Morgan McSweeney, you’re probably quids in.

Consider Jim Murphy. Last seen resigning from Scottish Labour in 2015 after a catastrophic general election defeat, Murphy did the smartest thing a former politician can do. He founded a boutique PR firm. The website of Arden Strategies makes no mention of Murphy leading Scottish Labour to a loss of 39 of its 40 Westminster seats. It does, however, make sure to describe itself as “one of only two UK agencies led by former Labour cabinet ministers”. As well as offering clients “thought leadership”, “strategic communications” and an important-sounding “Global Parliament Index”, Arden also has a dedicated “Labour Directorate”. Arden often sponsors Labour business events, and has its own lounge at party conference. Last December Murphy told Politico that his role was “to triage that partnership” between Labour and business.

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Arden Strategies had four members of staff in 2021, when the Conservatives were still expected to run the country into the 2030s. Now its website lists a team of 22, including the former Redcar Labour MP Anna Turley, former assistants to Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves, Starmer’s former head of Labour business relations and a clutch of ex-Scottish Labour officials.

Others follow where Arden leads. Hanbury Strategy launched its “Labour Unit” in 2022, just as a Starmer government became conceivable. The unit is led by Chris Ward, previously Starmer’s deputy chief of staff and chief speechwriter. Sam White, who used to be Starmer’s chief of staff, joined the PR firm Flint Global in March. He will advise clients “on strategy, sustainability issues, financial services and how the Labour Party works in government and opposition”. If you lift the rock above Hawthorn Advisors or the Blakeney Group, you will find many such “former”, “ex” and “previously” Labour types scuttling about.

The award for most inventive Labour lobbying so far must go to Pentland Communications. The firm was set up by Barrie Cunning, a former Labour candidate for the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency, in 2018. According to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Pentland paid Labour HQ £6,000 to part fund “the provision of a branded vehicle” for Angela Rayner last summer. The vehicle was a camper van branded with the slogan “Rayner on the Road”.

A few weeks before Rayner hit the road, she told the Guardian that Labour would ban ministers from taking lobbying jobs related to their former brief for up to five years to “fix the broken standards system and clean up politics”. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what happens when your former brief is spending decades, years or even months somewhere near the top of the Labour Party?

“The writing has been on the wall for a while,” one PR-industry insider told me. After the Tories lost the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire by-elections in 2023, most firms realised the future belonged to Starmer. Now, I was told, old Labour types “will get a decent to good amount of money for not doing very much at all”: £80,000-£100,000 a year for a day’s work done in a fortnight.

You have to feel for Britain’s captains of industry. Fourteen years of Conservative government, however mildewed and grotesque it has become, was not hard to understand. Tories are, on balance, probably more psychologically primitive than their Labour counterparts. Their desires are more straightforward. Their party does not have unions to deal with, nor is it split into a complex system of executive committees with mysterious names.

Hence the Labour gold rush. Like any gold rush, there will be mania, delusion and tragedy by the time it ends. If you’re planning on joining in, try to avoid having actual pound signs appearing in your eyes. My advice in any interview situation is to open by saying something soothing about Keir Starmer. “His values are like our rivers” is a good place to start.

[See also: How the National Trust won the war on woke

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024