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18 August 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 10:57am

10 times Jeremy Corbyn used the dark arts of spin to devastating effect

The man who doesn't do media is a PR maestro. 

By Anna Rhodes

In the post-truth world, nothing is as it seems. Ruthless plotting Blairite Labour MPs attuned to the 24/7 news cycle are in reality rudderless media car crashes. In comparison, Jeremy Corbyn, for whom the media is an allergen best treated with contempt, is a highly attuned media spin machine. Sure, sometimes it can appear like a slow spin often left on rinse hold, but nonetheless its impact is unquestionable.

The conventional view has it that Corbyn, the decent man of politics, doesn’t do media. The reasons are clear: the press distorts reality and creates monstrous stereotypes of the left.  Corbyn won’t get a fair hearing without unmediated access to the faithful.

This is part of Corbyn’s appeal – the anti-PR man hamstrung by his unpolished performance and authenticity. But the image of this unspun man is pure spin, of sorts. Of sorts, I say, because like all of the most effective PR stories there’s a kernel of truth around which the media image of Corbyn has been embellished.

As leader Corbyn hasn’t adopted a series of high profile progressive policies to take on the Tories. Instead he and his team have increasingly opted for the dark art of PR. They craft and communicate messages in order to undermine the credibility of Labour Party political opponents and their desire to find a new leader because of this very lack of Corbyn-driven policy.

The Corbyn team follow a straightforward political equation: If a politician of substance delivers policy it goes, then in the absence of such a politician, style must fill the void to avoid political suicide. Corbyn’s team, therefore, has successfully produced more spin to fill this gaping political hole of substance than many people have realized. 

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Still unconvinced? Here’s a list of Team Corbyn’s ten most effective spins.

1. Those polices are ours, mate

Piggy backing on rivals’ media announcements is classic spin, but the PR meister Corbyn has advanced this technique to new levels of sophistication.

For months, very few people, even possibly the inner circle of Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell itself, had any inkling of their plans. But following Owen Smith’s launch of attention grabbing policies on improving workers rights, the Corbyn team responded by doing something equally as impressive in PR terms. They told everyone Smith “nicked their ideas”.

It was an effective move, as it garnered headlines and column inches with the least amount of effort and, well, policy.

It’s hard to disprove this thievery allegation, of course, because Corbyn’s polices were then kept under strict lock and key. But as key independent advisers to Corbyn, such as David Blanchflower and Neale Coleman, have attested very few policies existed

The solving of the crime of theft then rests on a deep philosophical conundrum. If you have a policy but no one has heard of it does it really exist as a policy? Therefore, if you accuse someone of stealing something which by all definitions of reality doesn’t exist, can they really be a thief?

2. Bad/good pharma

Corbyn and McDonnell timed a policy announcement to remove tax relief for pharmaceutical innovation soon after Owen Smith became the main leadership challenger.

The launch was timed to perfection in order to frame Corbyn as an anti-big pharma campaigner compared with Smith the “lobbyist”. Smith was spun as the corporate stooge to the anti-corporate Corbyn. Only a serious spin merchant would be capable of pulling off such a PR gambit. 

Corbyn then upped the ante by spinning directly that medical research shouldn’t be farmed out to pharmaceuticals, further creating a credibility and ethics gap between himself and Smith. 

Yet Corbyn’s own policy is to use the money saved from closing the tax loophole to fund an increase in publicly funded research. And this, according to Corbyn, can be contracted out  – or put another way farmed out – to private research organisations, such as pharmaceuticals.  

Corbyn is playing a clever game of spin to the highest of Blairite standards. He claims the moral high ground, while at the same time unleashing cynically-timed statements to undermine his opponent personally. 

3. Hand of friendship

Corbyn tries to create an image of an authentic and decent politician “holding out the hand of friendship” to political foes in his own party, while forging a convincing strategy that will win the next election. 

Yet the reality is that any opponents, irrespective whether they have similar left-learning thinking, as Owen Smith does, are branded Blairite by his supporters.

This spin suggests that you lack the core convictions of Corbyn and are cynically corrupt, just like Blair. It’s a bog standard example of the well-worn but trusted spin technique of smear. Highly effective and rarely lets you down. 

4. I don’t compromise on fighting the Tories. 

This is the perfect spinning of the maelstrom that has hit the Labour party. Blame rebel MPs for causing a crisis in the party and preventing the Leadership from taking on the Tories. Corbyn, for instance, has claimed that the recent legal actions have been a waste of time. The time would have been better spent fighting the Tories. 

Corbyn believes that his brand of principled politics without compromise will be enough to defeat the Tories. It is part of the reason why he is so popular with the membership of the Labour party. If only he’d be allowed the space and time to just get on with the job!

Yet Corbyn and his team have had the time – the past nine months in fact.

And, more importantly they do compromise and quite considerably too. 

Richard Murphy, Corbyn’s economics guru, has blamed the Labour leader for a lack of conviction

He says the shadow chancellor’s first act was to sign up to Osborne’s fiscal charter. As Murphy has said: “a Corbyn/McDonnell opposition were going to do economic policy on Tory ground.” Corbyn’s policies, according to Murphy, “looked very much more like a lot more of the same failed politics to me”.

Murphy also points out that a central plank of Corbyn’s economic policy People’s Quantitative Easing (PEQ) was dropped after being central to his first leadership election campaign. It was Theresa May who revived it, says Murphy. So was PQE just a PR stunt to get Corbyn elected, and then quietly ditched? It appears so. 

5. Challenging his leadership is undemocratic and counter productive

Corbyn believes in democracy only so far as it supports his position. He didn’t worry when he tried to unseat the democratically elected Neil Kinnock by backing Tony Benn’s leadership challenge in the 1980s. 

Corbyn didn’t concern himself with stability, loyalty or wasting the leader’s time when he backed the Benn idea of a yearly leadership challenge. But faced with a similar agenda to wage a destructive leadership challenge against his own leadership, these principled ideas are an inconvenience. 

Corbyn also voted against the NEC amendment to hold a secret vote to keep him on the ballot for the leadership, despite warnings that those voting against him could be targeted. Instead, he portrayed the secret vote idea as a cynical plan to keep him off the ballot. 

The principle of a secret ballot is a key obligation in many international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It helps to avoid intimidation, election rigging and undue influence. Corbyn just didn’t agree with this well-established moral code on this particularly inconvenient occasion.  

As it is, despite the secret ballot, he won the vote.

6. Calm and inclusive approach 

Team Corbyn have argued for a calm and inclusive approach to politics. Yet two examples stand out that undermines this pledge. 

Angela Eagle revealed the pain of her decision to resign from the shadow cabinet by crying live on radio and then went out of her way to use calm and respectful language. Yet when she challenged Corbyn for the leadership she was quickly dismissed by Corbyn’s right-hand woman, Diane Abbott – or the Minister for the Today Programme – as “the Empire Strikes Back.”

One imagines that even Peter Mandelson wouldn’t even have compared a political opponent in his own party with the baddest man in the universe. McDonnell, another figure in Corbyn’s inner circle, called plotting MPs “fucking useless”.

7. Largest mandate of any Labour leader

While the rules have changed from leadership election to leadership election, the actual number of individual votes cast can still be counted and compared retrospectively.

Jeremy Corbyn received 251,41 votes from party members, registered supports and affiliated supporters.

Tony Blair in 1994 received a total of 508,148 votes from affiliated members, party members and MPs. 

So the total number of votes received by Blair is double that received by Corbyn.

To argue that Corbyn has the largest mandate of any leader is spin. And so for him to conclude, therefore, that he should not resign when challenged by his MPs because of this mandate is countered by the precedent set by Blair, who had a larger mandate. 

When Blair resigned in 2007 he did so because he lost the confidence of his MPs. Just 17 Labour MPs, in fact, forced him to resign. Blair’s larger mandate didn’t stand in his way. 

8. Claiming the success of others

In an attempt to show that Corybn is a leader with substance and strategic clout, team Corbyn paid for a Guardian advert listing his successes while as leader.

He claimed success, for instance, for a major Government U-turn on tax credits. Yet he played little role in this success. It was achieved by some of the very MPs he now says are undermining the mandate of the membership. 

A less spun and more honest advert could have said this:  “As leader I picked some really smart people to be in my shadow cabinet who worked hard to tackle Tory injustices. Other than appointing these MPs, I didn’t have anything to do with their work. So when I say I achieved this, I actually mean they did. And when I say I’ll continue with this type of success in the future, well it’ll be sort of a problem because I’m now fielding the B team because the A team has gone on strike due to a loss of confidence in the management.”

9. Local by elections results evidence for future general election triumph

The best that can be said of these results is that they are ambiguous. Claiming that because Corbyn won 47 per cent of councillors compared with Tony Blair’s 46 per cent in 1995 is evidence of electoral success is spin. The two elections were contesting a different set of seats. 

Percentages of councilors won is meaningless. Tony Blair actually gained 1, 807 seats from the Tories in 1995, whereas Corbyn lost 11. 

If that were replicated in a general election, a victory would be viewed as Labour successfully avoiding a landslide defeat to the Tories by only losing 11 MPs. It could have been so much worse, the Corbyn spin machine would trot out, so be thankful for small mercies.

10. Blair is the cause of everything rotten in the state of the Labour Party

There is no doubt that Blair made some big mistakes as Prime Minister, and despite investing heavily in public services, he could have been more radical given the size of his majorities. 

But take one step back into history and remember that one of the biggest Labour general elections defeats was in 1983 when a left-wing leader was at the helm. Then followed a series of defeats, where Labour were out of power for 17 years. It’s important to point out such obvious facts as these as today they are being expunged from history.

It has been argued that it was the left’s policies and its constant challenges to the leadership that put off floating voters during these years. It was only when Labour started moving to the centre under Kinnock that Labour recovered. The nightmare of successive election defeats no doubt psychologically scarred Blair and Brown and forced them to move further to the centre ground in order to secure power.

So it could be argued that the Corbyn and Bennite left created Blair. And therein lies a warning for Corbyn. If Corbyn’s stubborn determination to stay on as leader were to result in him losing the next general election, the defeat would destroy the left’s legitimacy for a generation. It may also help usher in a Labour leader to the right of Blair as a reaction to Corbyn, just as Blair’s worst excesses helped elect Corbyn as leader.

Blair’s hubristic tendencies and reliance on spin ended his premiership. Equally, the continued hubris of Corbyn, will lead to his demise at the next general election. It could also destroy the left wing of the party’s legacy.

If you imagine Corbyn as the electoral-winning phoenix rising from the Blairite ashes, you are buying into a constructed narrative that obscures the facts. The reality is deeply troubling:  more Labour voters now say they will vote Tory under Corbyn than they ever did under Blair. It’s now time for Corbyn to stop believing his own spin, become a man of substance and face the facts.

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