New Labour: from spin to social?

September 25th, 2009 by Jon Clements

The Labour Party’s final conference before the next General Election – and perhaps its last as Government for the next few years – begins on Monday. How will the party hope to engage with the electorate and stave off what looks now like an inevitable defeat? PR Media Blog spoke to Kerry McCarthy, recently appointed new media campaigns spokeswoman about how the social media sphere is influencing Labour’s communications.

If New Labour will be forever associated with anything in the English language, it will be the phrase “on message” and the word “spin”.

Tight, centralised control of communications and an unfortunate habit of using the ugly face of public relations to manipulate the truth has peppered much of New Labour’s time in power.

And while US congressman, Joe Wilson, recently caused a furore when he shouted “You lie!” at President Obama mid-speech, such an outburst against Tony Blair – if it had happened – following the exposure as fiction of the Iraq “dodgy dossier” would probably have been roundly applauded in the Commons.

This year’s Labour “Smeargate” scandal and the ensuing departure of government advisers, Damien McBride and Derek Draper, raised questions about Labour’s relationship with dirty tricks in the communications department.

But the party’s new media campaigns spokeswoman, Kerry McCarthy – or “Twitter Tsar” – believes that by embracing social media, Labour is making itself both more transparent and accountable.

Speaking of Smeargate, she says: “It was a tricky period. It was wrong, the ideas that were being kicked around – we don’t need to stoop to that level.”

But she also laments the growth of what she describes as “right wing blogs”: “I would be quite depressed if we had need for a Guido Fawkes on our side. The difficulty with blogs like that, and Iain Dale’s, is that they are not elected politicians and they would be held up to certain standards if they were. We haven’t got sites spreading smears about people.” 

Yet the idea that Labour might lean on a Labour blogger who was writing scandalous copy is not the case, says McCarthy: “If it was a keen, young activist we wouldn’t have any control over it. But I don’t think it’s a control freak thing to say we think it’s wrong and unprincipled. We don’t want the Labour Party tarnished with this.”

But how does a party with a history of autocratic control over communications relinquish its rule? “You can’t control it in the way Labour controlled the message in 1997 and afterwards. The news agenda has changed,” she says. “News is so much more rapid and also there is the commentary from a myriad of voices. The issues are all over the blogosphere and Twitter and it would be obvious if politicians are parroting soundbites. If you have got lots of different media outlets there is more chance that truth will come out. Stories get another life online.

“And [social media] is also about how [politicians] respond to people when they are challenged. Getting into debates [online] there is no way you can dictate that from the behind the scenes.”

But at a time when Labour is trailing in the polls and needs clarity about why people should vote for them, isn’t the idea of  MPs having countless, public conversations in social networks counter productive? McCarthy says: “Though politicians might have differing views on things, what comes through are the underlying principles and values.”

She draws a comparion between Labour’s immersion in social media and what she sees as the Tories’ reluctance: “I think it will be difficult for the Tories as it will be the maverick voices and the wilder elements of the party that will stand out”.

Labour is experimenting with different social media activities, including a way of using Twitter to make grass roots activists feel more included in debates at party conferences.

But is there a risk that Labour positioning itself as the “social media party” will detract from the real issues the public care about? “We’ve been careful about this,” says McCarthy, “as there’s nothing worse than politicians trying to be trendy. Authenticity is important and people will see if we are using it as a gimmick.

“Twitter is a two-way thing and it’s done in public, reaching a much wider audience. Politicians can be held more accountable so it is a useful tool.”

But how significant will social media be in helping Labour to victory in 2010? “It’s not the magic bullet that will win the election; it’s a small part of getting across the message but will help in getting activists enthused.” She notes that the need for door step campaigning and getting face-to-face with voters has not gone away.

And how does she juggle social media with the day job? “I’ve got 101 ideas for blog posts but it’s having the time to sit down and do them. With Twitter you can do it in a couple of minutes while you’re in the middle of something else.”

About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

20 Responses to “New Labour: from spin to social?”

  1. Guido Fawkes Says:

    “We haven’t got sites spreading smears about people.” No instead the Prime Minister’s right-hand man did that, and before Damian McBride, Alastair Campbell did that.

    Would she care to cite an example of a smear? No one has ever sued me for smearing them. The truth is not a smear.

  2. Guido Fawkes Says:

    Oh and she is wrong about the use of social media in a political context, preaching to the choir or interacting without purpose with your base is not politically significant, nor will it have an electoral effect.

    Carry on Tweeting, it won’t change the polls.

  3. Resources and Links 25/09/09 « Framing the Dot Says:

    […] Pr Media Blog interviews Kerry McCarthy – Labour’s new media campaigns spokesperson. […]

  4. Paul Says:

    None of the parties have cracked Social Media it’s true, but Kerry McCarthy is in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks Labour are doing better than Tories. Follow her on Twitter, all you get are RT:s of other Labour Twitters taking the p*ss out of Tories and Lib Dems and the RT:s of some Minister’s opening petitions or visiting a school.
    As I said, none of the Parties have truly cracked it, but Kerry McCarthy is like a child in a school playground on Twitter

  5. Mark Hanson Says:

    Jon, nice post and thinks for the link, although I should point out it refers to work that the ippr is doing, as opposed to Labour. Having said that, there’s I could tell you about in terms of engagement for Labour.

    I think we could debate all day who is ahead on the internet but I think the idea that finding ways to motivate your base, organise better and motivate supporters to do things for you is partly what social media is all about, so I would dispute Guido’s point about it being irrelevant.

  6. Michael Fowke Says:

    Left-wing blogs are boring. The authors of these blogs rarely have a personality.

  7. Peter Says:

    However much you talk up the benefits and use of social media for political purposes, it remains the case that dishonest drivel is exactly that. Not everyone who uses these things has been turned by them into a teenager overnight, and most still have the acuity to see through this stuff and judge it to be the dross most of it is.

  8. Ben Archibald Says:

    The idea that Labour are even at the same party as the tories on social media is laughable, reminds me of the day in 1997 when Heseltine said we would pull off a 20 seat margin.

    Utter crap, and betrays the extent to which Kerry McCarthy hasn’t got a handle on what social media is. On the other hand, PR hasn’t quite understood it yet either.

  9. Jon Clements Says:

    As a PR practitioner yourself, what do you think our field is not understanding about social media?


  10. Nicholas Says:

    Labour demonstrate once again their naive belief that the wording of the message is more important than its content. That may have been true in 1997 and the heady days of last-century Blairorama but Labour have thoroughly discredited political spin by so often beating the truth visibly, noisily and obscenely to death.

    Don’t confuse bloggers who expose leftist lies and leftist hypocrites with blogging for the right wing and don’t confuse hypocritical liars who blog for the left as representing an inherent failure of Labour to communicate. There are always going to be sharp distinctions in the type of wheelbarrow you use and what you put in it.

  11. Chris Says:

    “I would be quite depressed if we had need for a Guido Fawkes on our side. The difficulty with blogs like that, and Iain Dale’s, is that they are not elected politicians and they would be held up to certain standards if they were. We haven’t got sites spreading smears about people.”

    Sorry, you’ll have to remind me again – who was it that voted for Mandelson?

  12. steve steve Says:

    I have visite this womans twitter site and found it full of juvinille comments about the big bad Tories and how they will eat your children. Is that the best she can do ? Mature debate it aint ! She should get herself a real job in the real world.

  13. David Says:

    I was a keen young activist. I left the Labour Party when the likes of Kerry took over. Twenty years later I am a member of LPUK, and my class consciousness is as acute as ever. As it always was, it is the looted (us) against the looters (them).

  14. David Bouvier Says:

    And Kerry’s comments are a fine example of the kind of spin that makes people:

    Step 1: Gloss over McBride “we don’t need to stoop” ignoring that Brown’s personal attack dogs have been chewing up anyone who gets in their way across the Labour party for a decade, just as New Labour tried to smear innocents who got in their way (like David “Walter Mitty character” Kelly to name but one). Smearing is deep in Labour’s political DNA. So no McBride was not just a slip – they just got caught.

    Step 2: Try to position Guido as part of a united Tory front of sinister “right wing” media. Guido is a libertarian maverick – not a party hack, and anyway can look after himself.

    But lets dig a bit: Would Kerry prefer that the Labour sleaze Guido exposed had remained hidden? (is that “increasing transparency and accountability”.

    Are mere civilians or activists (“not elected politicians”) not be allowed to comment on our political masters. Heaven forbid alternative media builds up a reputation and any power. Labour would rather keep the individual weak in the face of state power, and ask us focus group questions.

    An interesting slip: Kerry explains that Labours control of “the message” in 1997 is impossible now because “there is more chance that truth will come out”. e.g. Kerry admits: LABOUR WOULD LIKE TO LIE; OUR PROBLEM NOW IS THAT WE GET FOUND OUT. Not sure you meant to say that Kerry, but yeah thats about right isn’t it. No wonder you all hate Guido so much.

    And she then co-opts the cross-party work of a charitable organisation as if it is Labours. Tell us Kerry is this nothing special about Labour, or should the charity commission be looking at the IPPRs status.

    Back to the spin: Step 4 – Patronise the Tories: the Tories can’t handle social media because “it will be the mavericks and wilder elements of the party that stand out” – like Iain Dale, Dan Hannan, or non-party “right wingers” like Guido. So very different from the web then?.

    In short what a disengenuous pile of tosh. Labour still wants to “get the message out”. If it listened to society they would call a general election and hope for mercy.

  15. Stuff I’ve Shared on Twitter 27.09.09 « The Seldom Seen Kid Says:

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    […] This post, linked to by Guido Fawkes simply as “Twitter Tsar Talks Tosh” on, sums up a lot about what’s right and wrong with Twitter. Skip to the end: Labour is experimenting with different social media activities, including a way of using Twitter to make grass roots activists feel more included… […]

  17. John Eastwood Says:

    Its funny the left haven’t yet twigged the (pretty obvious) solution to Gudio.

    If they didn’t lie, refrained from passing silly laws, stopped breaking their own silly laws, and weren’t in it mostly to feather their own nests, then Guido would have nothing to write about.

  18. Ben L Says:

    I agree with the comments above, re Kerry McCarthy’s tweets; fact is they are rarely engaging and often childish. Using Twitter to bombard people with party messages is surely a waste of time – you are simply duplicating content without adding anything original or noteworthy to the conversation. Barnsley Cllr Tim Cheetham is a much better example of a leftwing politician who seems to ‘get’ Twitter and what it can be used for.

    And whatever your thoughts about Dale or Guido (I am a Labour supporter) at least they say something interesting from time to time.

  19. Phil Says:

    “But she also laments the growth of what she describes as “right wing blogs”: “I would be quite depressed if we had need for a Guido Fawkes on our side. The difficulty with blogs like that, and Iain Dale’s, is that they are not elected politicians ”

    She should take a long hard look at the Cabinet and tell me how many are actually elected politicians!!!!!

    Ah the irony!

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