Labour needs to learn about barnacles

In the run-up to the General Election last year, much was made of Tory strategist Lynton Crosby’s insistence of ‘scraping off the barnacles’. The Conservative electoral campaign was a ship, and anything outside of the core messaging to voters was a barnacle on the hull that was slowing the Tories down. Crosby was insistent the barnacles, or unwanted distractions, had to be removed and thrown overboard.

If this week in Westminster teaches us anything, it’s that the Parliamentary Labour Party, but more particularly its communications operation, need to learn about barnacles. And while Lynton Crosby is unlikely to in vogue in Labour circles after the General Election, Labour could do far worse than heeding his advice.

Labour MPs have been reported as being incandescent with rage at the leaking of a ‘loyalty list’ created by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, and even allegedly by the Party’s leader’s own office. Their discontent is not even because many of them are not viewed as being committed Corbyn supporters. That’s not news – it’s common knowledge that many within the Parliamentary Party did not vote for their leader. Their frustration and anger is based on how the list has been turned into a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Prime Minister and Chancellor – setting Labour back when the Party had a gilt-edged opportunity to haul the Conservatives over the coals over a near omnishambles Budget.

As The Independent reported, ‘loyalty lists’ are nothing new. Labour drew up one for Tony Blair back in 1997. But from a communications perspective, it’s difficult to imagine this setback coming at a worse time for Labour.

The authority of any political party leadership has its limits. If the list was drawn up without Corbyn’s office’s knowledge and approval, then there’s a cap on what they can feasibly do. But it’s reasonable to suggest the Party leadership could be communicating with activists to explain the opportunities to challenge the Government over the Budget, and that any ill-timed interventions are ultimately an unwanted and unhelpful distraction.

The consequence of the loyalty list is that the immediate opportunity to critique the Prime Minister and Chancellor after their particularly bad last ten days has gone. While it’s possible for Labour to go back on the offensive, further efforts will be somewhat blunted. The public has been reminded again that all is not well within the Party ranks. The question now is whether the Parliamentary Party, and particularly the communications team, can learn from this episode, improve communications discipline, take the advice of Lynton Crosby, and exert their influence to limit the number of future barnacles on the hull.