It has been, even by the Corinthian standards of the leadership’s noble gang of gentleman amateurs, a terrible post-Christmas period for Labour. The political agenda should have been dominated by a gleeful Jeremy Corbyn filling his boots with David Cameron’s unforced errors. We should have seen him waist-deep in flood water bellowing about Tatler Tories and striking junior doctors. What we’ve had, though, has been the customary sullen silence, 72 solid hours of Michael Dugher with his bum in the air, and, consequently, an antsy press corps turning to the devil with an acute case of idle hands. It has been another shambles.
It has been hard to watch the Tories twirl their moustaches and cackle unopposed at the moonlight as they float pernicious housing bills and drop pesky inquiries into banking sectors while the Labour Party punches itself comatose. Now, after the reshuffle, the latest in a series of preventable press feeding fiascos, even the most starry-eyed Corbynistas have to start asking what’s going wrong. Too many of us are still willing to blame Corbyn’s media woes on a hostile media. It is unfriendly, but not solely so – too much of the embarrassing speculation and damaging public criticism can be pinned on team Corbyn’s stony silence.
The media reports, by and large, on what it is given. Because they’re not getting blood out of this particular stone, they’re feeding off what they can find, which has allowed a venal attention-seeker like Dugher to spout his rubbish with total impunity. This has resulted in days of bad headlines for Corbyn, whose press team hasn’t bothered – or worse thought – to get ahead of the reshuffle story.
I’m still hesitant to blame Corbyn for his lack of media slipperiness – he was elected as the sincerity guy, the one who doesn’t think to glad-hand at mucky photocalls. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t need someone to think of basic stuff like this for him. Where is his spin doctor?
He has one, supposedly: Seumas Milne, the ex-Guardian journo so controversially recruited in the summer. From his grim countenance, it’s not hard to see him as a Malcolm Tucker-like figure, in as much as he seems as though he quite likes a shout at people, but he clearly doesn’t have the touch, or even interest, in controlling the news.
Some simple reshuffle good news, or just a good old chop at Dugher’s knees, would have done wonders to mould this week’s front pages. A little bit of meat for the weary press camped outside Corbyn’s office could have prevented Dugher’s allies from painting him like a Yorkshire Jesus, but because they had nothing else to go on, the procession of cowards tweeting coded messages of support was the only thing that got covered.
There are many ways of dealing with the press: a reign of terror or buying them all a doughnut every day. But you have to do something – Milne is clearly not doing enough to cultivate relationships and feed positive stories.
So now we’re stuck with ‘the revenge reshuffle’, which implies Corbyn is small-minded and vindictive, and that the blue Labour partisans in the hills are fighting valiant rearguard action against the encroaching communists. If Milne had done his job – any kind of job – we might have had ‘the people’s reshuffle’ or something, and the irreconcilables might not be poxing up the airwaves and running away with the perception.
We might even not be presented with the kind of scuttlebutt that suggests eight shadow frontbenchers were suddenly willing to fall on swords they hadn’t known they had to stick up for battlin’ Hilary Benn, because a decent head of press would have had them in the room and sewn their mouths shut.
Milne needs to realise that we don’t have a Pravda, no matter how much he wishes we would, and that he has to start playing the game. If he can’t, or won’t, it’s time for him to be disappeared.