The twelve rules of opposition: day ten

by Atul Hatwal

Rule 10: Stories, stories, stories

It’s not often that there is unanimity between the pixels of Uncut and Liberal Conspiracy, but on one issue there is total agreement – the need for Labour to be more prolific in generating news stories.

In May last year, Sunny Hundal posted about how the shadow cabinet seemed half  asleep. The big stories revealing the levels of public sector job cuts, crony appointments to quangos and costs of over-running departmental programmes were all driven by pressure groups.

Precious little research that quantified what the government was doing was coming from the shadow cabinet.

Based on an analysis of Labour press releases as part of Uncut’s monthly work effort league, since Ed Miliband became leader, his shadow cabinet (excluding the leader and deputy leader) have proactively generated 70 stories between them.

That’s an average of five stories a month. Just over one story per week from the cumulative endeavours of what are meant to be Labour’s 20 most effective politicians is hardly an outstanding return.

Rule 10 requires the opposition to flood the government lines with stories, hitting them daily and weekly, across each department and on every possible detail that can be used to generate negative coverage of the administration.

It’s a truism of opposition life that achieving media profile is more difficult than when in government. In office, a party has the ability to make news through policy. Ministers matter in a way that their shadows do not.  An opposition is limited to glorified commentary.

But the government is not all powerful in the media. Their communications operation is cumbersome. Each press release is effectively written by committee with input from the various directorates in a department and subject to multiple sign-offs.

Responding quickly is the work of days rather than hours.

In contrast, the opposition has shorter lines of accountability. Comment and content can be turned around in hours or even minutes. There are ever more journalists in broadcast, the print press and online, looking to fill blank space who will take a story. And every government department presents a large, lumbering target.

Each week, these departments spew out rafts of statistics, announcements, reports and updates in which lurks the single detail that can be used to make a story. Parliamentary questions and freedom of information (FOI) requests can wheedle out the damaging information which departments often want to obscure.

The experience of both the Major and Brown governments, battered in the media by a more nimble footed opposition, is testament to what can be achieved.

The high volume media assault, inflicted by Blair’s Labour party and Cameron’s Tories while in opposition, fundamentally changed the nature of the political contest in three ways.

It helped shift the public’s perception of government competence; changed how the media operated and degraded the ability of the administration to deliver its programme.

In terms of the public, the blizzard of opposition generated stories meant that voters got to see and hear a lot more about what was going wrong in government. Even if the stories were minor, they contributed to creating an environment where the government rarely received the benefit of the doubt from the public.

Second, journalists developed new behaviours, relying on the opposition with increasing regularity for their copy. The close working relationships built meant that Labour in the 1990s and the Tories in late 2000s were able to work with the media to co-ordinate attacks on the government and better manage any negative stories that could have damaged their own cause.

Few believe Labour would have received such quiescent reporting on the Bernie Ecclestone donation if the story had emerged in 2007 instead of 1997.

And third, the government’s capacity to deliver its programme was significantly disrupted.

At a civil service level, each story required a response that tied up senior staff from the department. Their media grids were trashed as new stories broke, derailing pre-planned announcements and a culture of caution took hold in the government’s media operation.

In the dying days of the Brown government in early 2010, in Ed Miliband’s own department for energy and climate change, the civil servants virtually declared UDI from the politicians who were pushing for positive news stories. The departmental staff stopped feeding potential material up to ministers because of their fear of another media meltdown.

At a political level the media onslaught pressured individual ministers who were afraid of incurring the ire of Downing street if their department was the latest disaster story. As with the civil servants, fear paralysed. Inactivity became the order of the day in the hope the media would find some other poor department to lambast.

It was a mindset that meant when the black spot did fall on their department, they were rabbits in headlights.

For the current Labour opposition, there have been some signs of life in the shadow cabinet, particularly in the last three months of 2011.

The average for the quarter was six proactive stories per month with Caroline Flint and Andy Burnham leading the way. In November and December alone, Flint put out five stories while Burnham was responsible for seven.

But more is needed. Much more. Flint and Burnham’s performance is indicative of what is possible. If the rest of the shadow cabinet had matched them, the government would have been deluged with 60 stories a month.

At the moment Cameron’s ministers seem to be more concerned with the internal politics of their coalition than the opposition. Increasing the media work rate by proactively generating stories instead of waiting for the call from the BBC or Sky would help fix this situation.

Regardless of the big strategic debates about economic policy or Labour’s positioning, rule 10 is about process. It requires applied hard work and is an essential pre-requisite for victory.

As Ed Miliband prepares his programme of action for the new year, driving his shadow cabinet to work harder in the media needs to be in the plan.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Tomorrow: Rule 11 – What gets measured gets managed

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6 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition: day ten”

  1. Nick says:

    Parliamentary questions and freedom of information (FOI) requests can wheedle out the damaging information which departments often want to obscure.

    So what does Labour want to hide? It’s debt and what people’s share of the debt that they will have to pay.

    1,050 bn of borrowing on the books.

    6,000 bn of debts off the books (including PFI)

    Share per taxpayer, 225,000 pounds.

    If you’re so keen on the truth coming out, why not have government send everyone an annual statement with their share that they have to pay on it. Pro rata per taxpayer.

    It can also include the total tax they paid.

    The increase (or decrease) in the debt.

    It can include their state pension accruals.

    ie. a This is how it goes statement for everyone.

    For those on benefits, how about a statement as to the cost of what they have received?

    2K for free health insurance.
    Housing benefit

    You could even accumulate the figure over people’s working life.

    Somehow I suspect you want to be opaque.

  2. Laura says:

    I’ve said before that I really disagree with you about this. You talk about how the work of civil servants can be disrupted as though it’s a great thing. This kind of behaviour is one of the things that puts me right off politicians.

    And if you look at the stories generated – Andy Burnham isn’t driven by a disruptive urge to make mischief, he’s driven by a positive desire to improve the NHS.

    I certainly don’t want Margaret Curran to repeat Anne McKechin’s mistake of wasting time harrying the Scottish Office with questions, I want her to devote her time to coming up with an effective way of challenging the SNP before she and the other Scottish Labour MPs sleepwalk to doing themselves out of a job altogether.

  3. Rob the cripple says:

    I have been reading Miliband and his leader of opposition on welfare to day, interesting I’m a scrounger again. god help us if this Labour party ever get back into power.

  4. Henrik says:

    Fantastic idea. Make it even harder for the incumbent government to clear up the appalling mess you lot made by harassment and elbow-jogging. That’ll convince the electorate that you have the nation’s best interests at heart, right?

    How about behaving as if you were patriotic and loyal co-citizens who actually felt some obligation to be constructive?

  5. Frederick James says:

    I presume “ditch your leader if he’s useless” is Rule 13, so unfortunately got left out of this series?

  6. AmberStar says:

    @ Laura

    As a fellow citizen of Scotland & an admirer of Andy Burnham’s approach, I agree with you 100%.

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