Learning lessons from the Rise of the House of Corbyn

Date 12.11.2015

Dr Mils Hills, Associate Professor in Northampton Business School, considers the Labour Party leadership race…

“The current travails of the Labour Party raise a number of questions for political pundits and the academic world to ponder. I want to look at just one, an issue which has implications for how we process information and make decisions more generally. And about how other forms of narratives might also be effectively challenged.

I’m going to make some comments on the somewhat inexplicable rise of Jeremy Corbyn MP from Labour Party backbench activist to the leading contender – in many polls ­- for leader of that Party. In particular, I am going to look at the difficulty that other leadership contenders, media commentators and opinion-formers (from Guardian columnists to former Labour Ministers, through to eminent political historians) have faced in resisting the ‘Rise of the House of Corbyn’.

The main issue that has faced the rival leadership contenders (and their fans) is an inability to counter Corbyn’s (and his fans’) policies, aspirations and positions with their own proposals and messaging. The contenders are attempting a symmetrical battle when the struggle is a classic one of asymmetry. Having the better argument, the true-r facts and common-sense on your side does not mean that an opponent, their supporters and the wider hinterland are susceptible to what ought to be the heavy artillery of facts and figures. Indeed, the more spirited the symmetrical attack – the more Corbyn’s camp have been reinforced in their beliefs that they are standing up to the status quo. By being unable to land any significant blows on Corbyn, the other candidates have essentially provided credibility to his stances – many of which are either unworkable or unworldly.

No-one should be surprised that the current situation has been reached, given the conduct of the campaign. The American political strategist Lakoff cautioned campaigners with these words:

Simply negating the other side’s frames only reinforces them. […] If you believed in rationalism, you would believe that the facts will set you free, that you just need to give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they will reason their way to the right conclusion.

We know this is false, that if the facts don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all, physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts.

The facts must be framed in a way to make sense in order to be accepted as a basis for further reasoning. […] Frame or lose (Lakoff 2006: 14, 15).

The Corbynistas have effectively framed their man as a champion of a credible alternative approach to the ‘austerity’ programme of the Con-Lib coalition and the current Conservative administration. They have positioned themselves as having workable new approaches to defence, security, housing, benefits, environmental and other issues. The fact that these plans and policies are actually un-evidenced, un-costed and often irresponsible is hardly the point. Indeed, very effectively, Corbyn’s advisors have ensured that he is portrayed as the straight-talking, counter-establishment thinker who communicates truths that others shy away from. That the other contenders had little in the way of decisively different policy did not help – even when they did have policies which looked as though they could play positively, these were not well structured (framed) either.

Corbyn’s rival candidates and their advisory teams had little or no hope of out-competing him on the basis of appeals to facts and rationality about why his policies and ideas were unworkable. That is not what this competition is about. Their offers and messaging have been poorly framed and have done little more than provide points of definition against which each can vaguely differentiate themselves. The facts have not been well-framed, and so in this competition it looks as though all but Corbyn have indeed lost.

But that does not mean that Corbyn’s ascendancy has been anything more than fragile and lucky – he could have been held to significant challenge which would have devastated his campaign. The same reasoning applies to the policies of UKIP – which are rarely subject to the same kind of robust challenge that those of the traditional parties receive, and which gains significant media exposure despite the party achieving only 3.9 million votes in a General Election where its leader could not manage to win a Parliamentary seat.

My research in the area of information and influence provides a few examples of how Corbyn’s prospectus could have been engaged with more effectively.

At the conceptual level, the notion of ‘brittle-ing’ is a useful one. This is where it is shown that an idea or personality is less permanent and indispensable than we have come to think. ‘Age-ing’ is another angle – whereby an idea or personality’s image is artificially aged: all new phenomena necessarily become old-fashioned and hackneyed – and there may be ways in which this process can be accelerated.

In terms of delivery – then – to operationalise these concepts a little:  if I had been consulting to one of the Leadership contenders, I’d have suggested using scenario-based approaches to engage Party and supporter electors and media influencers. In other words, generating actual imagery and mental pictures of what the future would look like under Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition. I would generate a ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of what the first few hours and days of a Corbyn incumbency would look like and the implications for the Party and country. The ‘team’ of front- and back-of-house advisors; the fatal Prime Minister’s Question Time performances; the scandals around the backgrounds of the advisors; the questions about links to Russia, Iran; the savaging of proposed fiscal, foreign, defence and security policy; the endless decline in the polls; the circling of political vultures …. The image of the elderly man in contrast to the vibrant, jogging PM, and so on. Rolled forward by a year or two, the seemingly shiny and novel ideas (‘People’s Quantitative Easing’) might be shown to have been dismembered by the Office for Budget Responsibility; a security crisis (such as a threat to the Falklands) or a humanitarian disaster might be a backdrop for a dithering and un-statesmanlike rehearsal of politically indefensible proposals.

In terms of what rival candidates could have done, then, we can do worse than draw inspiration from one of the most memorable Parliamentary speeches of recent time (2008) – given by then shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague MP, whose pen portrait of a scenario when PM Gordon Brown would meet the EU President Tony Blair is quite something:

We can all picture the scene at a European Council sometime next year. Picture the face of our poor Prime Minister as the name “Blair” is nominated by one President and Prime Minister after another: the look of utter gloom on his face at the nauseating, glutinous praise oozing from every Head of Government, the rapid revelation of a majority view, agreed behind closed doors when he, as usual, was excluded. Never would he more regret no longer being in possession of a veto: the famous dropped jaw almost hitting the table, as he realises there is no option but to join in. Then the awful moment when the motorcade of the President of Europe sweeps into Downing Street. The gritted teeth and bitten nails: the Prime Minister emerges from his door with a smile of intolerable anguish; the choking sensation as the words, “Mr President”, are forced from his mouth. And then, once in the Cabinet room, the melodrama of, “When will you hand over to me?” all over again (link)

Through mixing future-casting, strong imagery and wit, Hague effectively captures the attention of the news media and other conversations in a dramatic manner. The same generation of a sense of what a Corbyn-led Labour Party would look, feel, act and fail at could also have been generated  by one or more of the rival contenders. Note the emotional references and level of detail. An imaginative and impressive piece of prose. It is such powerful, persuasive, asymmetric framing activity that could have comprised communications activities to change the course of events – and importantly, each element of such a mental or literal picture could have been evidence-based – with links to the sayings and actions of Mr Corbyn and his key supporters.

​Framing is about structuring facts, ensuring that the competitor’s approach is made irrelevant by a stronger, better, definitive capture of the imagination of leadership electors. By failing to effectively frame and a reliance on conventional, symmetrical policy and messaging strategies – opportunities to effectively challenge the weaker manifesto were lost.​