With the party conference season likely to kick off a challenging autumn and winter for Boris Johnson, the Labour Party is in desperate need of some sustainable media strategies to try to keep the government on the back foot.
A five-paragraph news story in one of the few Labour-supporting national newspapers might seem an insignificant start but it was an illustration of what could become part of a wide-ranging campaign to exploit a myriad of failings and missed opportunities in the Brexit small print.
The aim would be not to re-heat past divisions over the EU Referendum but to demonstrate how an incoming Labour administration would work to repair the UK’s fractious relations with Brussels.
Across the country – and especially in leave-voting areas – there is a litany of post-Brexit woes whether in the fishing industry or food processing, disrupted trade with Northern Ireland, or insurmountable hurdles facing small exporters and the angst among professionals whose job opportunities have been limited by restrictions on freedom of movement.
Problem solving on the scale that is required is beyond the capabilities of a Conservative government trapped by the Brexiteers’ red lines.
Ben Glaze’s exclusive report in the Daily Mirror – ‘Labour vows to fix Brexit music fiasco’ (21.7.2021) – highlighted a pledge by the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves that an incoming Labour government would immediately negotiate procedures with Brussels to make it easier for British musicians to perform in Europe.
Within a couple of weeks, stung by the criticism from across music and the arts, the Culture Department claimed that 19 EU countries had now agreed that UK performers would not need visas or work permits for short-term tours.
But once the music industry and artists’ unions had studied the statement, they concluded nothing had changed: the government had not defined the length of “short-term touring”; differing rules applied in each of the 19 countries; and Spain, Portugal and Greece were not included.
Elton John, who had written in The Guardian (8.2.2021) about his anger at the way Brexit rules were thwarting the next generation of British stars, complained that the government statement was nothing more than ‘a rehash’ of what everyone knew; the visa issues had not been resolved.
Touring artists still face entry requirements and financial and logistical hurdles which they insist present insurmountable barriers to British acts performing within the EU.
Yet again there had been same sleight of hand: ministers brushed away post-Brexit complications with their usual smokescreen that ‘discussions are continuing’ – a signal to Conservative-supporting newspapers that the story about the musicians’ plight was not worth reporting and could be ignored, which it was.
Only rarely do these unresolved complications get a hearing in the Brexit press and when they do it tends be Brussels-baiting over restraints on UK trade with Northern Ireland or sabre rattling over potential fishing wars in the English Channel.
In his rush to complete the negotiations with the EU and ‘Get Brexit Done’, Johnson rejected numerous potential deals that were on offer from the EU, and which could have produced compromise agreements.
By backing the musicians’ campaign – just one of countless pleas for help from professional groups and small businesses being held back by Brexit red tape – Rachel Reeves signalled what could be the start of a co-ordinated strategy to prepare the ground for a wide range of negotiated settlements.
Here is the basis of an opportunity for Labour to work with – and publicise – the plight of a host of aggrieved workers and employers and assist them in devising the kind of deals that an incoming Starmer-led government could deliver.
With the easing of the lockdown and the much hoped for return in the coming months of international trade and transport, Brexit red tape will loom large and with it the difficulties of restoring business, entertainment, and educational links with Europe.
In the long lead-up to the 1997 general election, Blair’s strategists pulled together a rainbow alliance of pressure groups and special interest campaigns from across the political spectrum to tackle issues ranging from human rights to animal welfare.
Blair’s spin doctors were pushing at an open door: frustrations that had built up during the Thatcher decade and Major years became the basis of a co-ordinated and durable media strategy to highlight causes which a Blair government would try to put right.
A similar systematic approach to explain how Starmer and his colleagues would strive to negotiate the kind of deals that Conservative Brexiteers could not countenance would be welcomed with open arms by the Remain wing of the party while at the same time explaining to Leave supporters that the UK’s departure from the EU had left a lot of unfinished business that only a new government could sort out.
A Labour Party pitch to solve outstanding problems would present an appealing cross-party platform and help push hard-line Tory Brexiteers even further into an unwelcome and potentially hostile cul-de-sac.
Perhaps the greatest omission of the news media during the EU Referendum campaign was the abject failure of press, television, and radio to present a comprehensive picture of the impact which Brexit would have on British industry, business, and employment.
Yet again the dominant Brexit-supporting press is failing to monitor and chart the loss of jobs and opportunities that have occurred since 2016.
Yes, there are occasional news stories, but where is there a chapter and verse account of the extent to which employment has been lost as so many firms have found they have no alternative but to establish EU-based subsidiaries to avoid Brexit red tape.
A shining example of diligence so lacking in the mainstream media has been the work of Yorkshire Bylines which has done sterling work with its Digby Jones Index in monitoring the exodus.
Jones predicted that leaving the EU ‘would not result in a single job leaving the UK’ – a hollow promise which is exposed by a list of 260 reports of individual cases where British employment has been exported to Europe.
Starmer’s media team has a ready-made basis on which to start work: an accurate list of the jobs that have been lost which sits alongside the David Davis Downside Dossier, another compelling account by Yorkshire Bylines of his false assertion that there would be ‘no downside to Brexit at all, and considerable upsides’
Illustrations: Metro, 24.6.2021;The Guardian, 8.2.2021; The Guardian, 21.1.2021; Daily Telegraph, 21.2.2021
Nicholas Jones’ books include Soundbites and Spin Doctors (1995), Campaign 97 (1997), and Sultans of Spin (1999).