In the aftermath of Labour’s General Election defeat, Jeremy Corbyn squeaked into the party’s leadership contest, portrayed by some as a joke candidate. Positioned next to his rivals, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, Corbyn looked like the antidote to the modern manicured politician. He was meant to provide the interest on the fringes of the campaign whilst one of his competitors took on the mantle of making Labour electable again.
It didn’t turn out quite like that. He has now received the biggest party mandate for any political leader in British history and, as he starts life as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the heirs of ‘New Labour’ face a period of severe introspection and an uncertain political future. Not since Michael Foot (and yes, we know what happened to him) has the party elected a leader less suited to being spun by its PR machine. This may be refreshing but it could also be a double-edged sword.
And herein lies the lesson. Corbyn may have found himself on the ballot almost by accident but, leaving aside the issue of how many non-Labour supporters registered and actually voted, whether knowingly or otherwise, it is undeniable that he tapped into a palpable appetite for change.
There was going to be a downside for Labour either way. To keep the party with sufficient substance to be effective, Corbyn must find a way of keeping Labour together as a single broad church. In the same way, if he had lost to one of his rivals, they would have been faced with the dilemma of keeping on board a large group of supporters who would have felt that their aspirations had been dashed.
But as Simon & Garfunkel once wrote, you have to keep the customer satisfied. In short, capturing the mood is only the first part. It’s now about delivering on a vision – or a product or service – that embodies your customers’ (or your supporters’) aspirations or needs rather than creating a product or service (or vision) and then trying to persuade your market (or your electorate) that this is what they need or want. The challenge is to be able to fulfil the customer’s aspiration and deliver on the vision that you have set out. That can be tough for brands but Mr Corbyn need only look to President Obama or Prime Minister Tspiras to see just how difficult it can be for leaders too. It’s always harder once the vision has to be turned into a reality and the disruptive brand on the sidelines becomes the establishment.
This is the real essence of PR. It is not, as some always portray, about spurious events or stunts. It’s about capturing a mood, communicating a vision and then, critically, delivering on the hopes and expectations of those in your target audiences. And that’s the same for a product manufacturer, a service provider as much as it is for an aspiring Prime Minister. With any communication plan, you have to be able to carry your stakeholders with you. Only time will tell whether Jeremy Corbyn can do that and, if he can’t, what the fall-out and implications for the Labour brand will be.