Jeremy Corbyn wants to bypass the mainstream media. So why are Labour's memes so bad?

If you’re going to make social media the central plank of your communications strategy then at least try to be good at it.

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A lot of attention has been focused on Jeremy Corbyn’s competence – or otherwise – as Labour leader. That’s fair enough, but it would be wrong to pin all of Labour’s woes on a single individual. There are other problems lurking in the party, and none loom larger than its abysmal communications. 

April 1st saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Twitter account issue a prime example – a policy proposal pitched so poorly that I first thought it was an April Fool’s joke.  “Labour’s bus policy will mean greener, more accessible and modern buses - which operate as part of an integrated system,” the tweet read. Underneath it was the following attempt at a meme:

Where do you even start? Ignore what you think about the policy, just marvel at the sheer terribleness of its presentation. It looks like something from a Soviet-era transport-worker’s training manual.  The pink colours are washed out and hideous. Why does the bold text finish halfway through a sentence? Did the Tories cut fonts? Why could you not add a nice picture of a modern bus instead of a reject from a 1980s clip-art collection? Is this miserable bus with its flat tyres, missing left wing-mirror and empty sockets where the headlights should be, supposed to inspire us?

Then there’s the text. Dear god, the text. Why is it not written in plain English? What does 'joint and through ticketing schemes' mean to anyone who doesn't work in middle management at a bus company? How are phrases like ‘mandatory equality training’ supposed to play with voters? What is this 'national strategy' you speak of but never explain? Why are there so many awkward, tedious, wonkish phrases? Why don’t you hire an editor?

That it reads like a policy nerd’s civil service fan-fiction is bad enough, but it’s grammatically incompetent too. Why is everything crammed into one long sentence? Why does that sentence describe a ‘commitment to… a commitment’? What is going on with the hyphen in Jeremy’s tweet? Could you not decide whether to end the sentence or not? And why does the ad lack the most important part of any advert: a call to action? 

Why not just say something simple, like:

"LABOUR’S BUS PROMISE 

More Wi-Fi. Simpler ticketing. Less Pollution. 

Learn more at labour.org.uk/transport."

That version is clear, easily read and understood by the average punter. It focuses on the things people actually care about. It gives a clear action for the reader to take: come to our website and find out more about our wonderful transport manifesto. See? It’s not hard. I’m not even a PR guy. 

Then there’s the timing. Can you conceive of a worse moment for Labour to launch a national bus policy than April Fool's Day on a Saturday morning in the middle of the Article 50 news cycle? We’re leaving the EU, Spain is making moves on Gibraltar, the Tories are presiding over the potential break-up of the Union, and this is the moment you choose to try to pivot the national conversation to public transport? 

No professional PR person worth his or her salary would post something this bad on the Internet. They would be embarrassed and ashamed to have their name associated with it. And yet here it is, proudly displayed by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. How many people signed off in this? What organizational failure led to work this terrible being allowed to represent the Labour Party?

If this were a one-off it might be excusable, but it isn’t. Time and time again, the party leadership puts out material that is poorly written and shoddily presented. A video on Labour’s ‘six tests’ for a Brexit deal contains catchy lines like: “Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities.”

A meme about the NHS has text next to a badly-Photoshopped wrinkle-free Jezza that begins: “I have a simple message to the Theresa May (sic) and the Chancellor Philip Hammond, ‘give the NHS and social care the funding it (sic) needs in next week’s Budget’. Your grammatically inept message to a specific Theresa May would be even simpler if you just said it, instead of explaining that you’re about to say something and only then getting to the point.

Then there’s this punchy text about gender inequality in the Spring Budget. The key message here is that 86% of cuts fall on women. Labour highlights this by making it the last thing in the text and putting it under a dull, generic title on the same awful pink background.  As if that weren’t bad enough, Jeremy (or whichever intern writes his tweets for him) takes the opportunity to introduce a dismal new hashtag to the world: #BeBoldForChange. Ironic for people who ran out of bold mid-sentence. 

It’s easy to blame Corbyn for Labour’s problems, but between the tone-deaf writing, utter lack of style, and a growing reputation for indifferent and tardy responses to journalists, Labour’s communications staff have to take some of the responsibility for the party’s dismal poll ratings. Supporters can blame the media as much as they like, but at some point the party’s leadership has to take responsibility for the shoddy material they’re putting out to the world. 

If you want to bypass mainstream media and reach people on the Internet instead, then fine. But if you’re going to make social media the central plank of your communications strategy then for God’s sake at least try to be good at it. Find people who can write decent copy. Invest in some better clip-art, or go take a photo of an actual bus to use.  Hire somebody who knows how to use Twitter properly.  It won’t fix everything, but it would at least be a start. 

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.