Coherent Westminster communications: a New Year’s wish for 2017

By Chris Rogers December 22, 2016 4:23 pm

Let’s be honest. 2016 hasn’t been a banner year for the Westminster bubble when it comes to communicating with the rest of the world.

What have we seen? Well, for starters, there were the campaigns to Remain and Leave the EU. One became known as Project Fear, and the other was hardly any better. In a campaign that felt like it started sometime in the last decade, such was its length and saturation of the media, you could count the number of positive messages on one hand. And probably have a couple of fingers left over.

Since the referendum, the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” could have won, hands down, any number of awards for vacuous political comment of the year.

Actually, that’s unfair. It was simply the most vacuous comment of the year – both inside and outside politics.

Which brings us to Labour. And, sadly, the phrase that best encapsulates Labour’s external communications this year is ‘missing in action’. When you’ve got a leader of the opposition attracting less media attention than when a former Prime Minister heads to a furniture store, something’s gone a bit wrong.

Finally, government communications since the referendum. Theresa May has made it very clear since becoming Prime Minister that the buck stops with her, and that Downing Street will set the agenda and determine what the Government’s message will be. All well and good. It means perhaps less autonomy for departments and secretaries of state than under David Cameron, but that is of course Mrs May’s prerogative.

The problem, however, is that not everyone seems to have got the memo. And that means there have been a series of conflicting statements and messages from ministers in recent months. Boris Johnson has been slapped down by the Prime Minister. Philip Hammond has suggested transitional arrangements for Brexit. And most recently, the Prime Minister has appeared to contradict statements from her Brexit Secretary about the information that will be given to MPs and the role they’ll play in negotiations.

Why does this matter? Well, first and foremost, it does little to engage and inform the public. Six months on from the referendum, we don’t know much more about Brexit than we did during the conjecture of the campaign.

Secondly, the apparent lack of clarity from government, and the relative silence from Labour, is creating a space in which anti-establishment voices can continue to flourish. Now that might be healthy within a democracy, but if the so-called political establishment wants to re-engage the public, it needs to up its game.

Finally, the communications deficiencies of the past 12 months do little for the democratic process. There’s comparatively little information out there from government, certainly on Brexit. And the quiet from Labour does little to challenge ministers or scrutinise their plans.

Going into the New Year, there’s an opportunity for a watershed. Labour should be looking to be far more vocal in 2017 – making every effort to secure headlines and get Jeremy Corbyn in front of the electorate. And the Government needs to reinforce its discipline and procedures to ensure ministers aren’t talking at cross purposes.

Otherwise, the public risks being uninformed and disengaged, which neither party wants ahead of a General Election in 2020.

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