Inside Corbyn’s game changing election campaign: Steve Howell interview
by Ian Sinclair
18 June 2018
Appointed the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in the Labour leadership team in February 2017, Steve Howell had an insider’s view of the most extraordinary general election of recent times.
The Cardiff-based Howell was the Chief Executive of Freshwater, a communications consultancy he founded in 1997, when he got the call from his old friend Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s Director for Communications and Strategy.
“Politics is not a spectator sport”, he recounts Milne telling him in his new book Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.
“People have said ‘Why did you call it Game Changer?’”, Howell, 64, tells me over breakfast in a central London hotel. “It’s a fair question but I think it’s valid to call it Game Changer for several reasons. One is we denied them [the Tories] a majority, and that meant they couldn’t do most of the things that was in their manifesto”, he argues. “We have still got austerity but some of the nasty stuff like getting rid of winter fuel allowances, dementia tax, scrapping the triple lock [on state pensions] they haven’t been able to do because they haven’t got a majority.”
“I think it was a game changer in the sense it was a campaign like no other”, he continues. “We were told by people who are experienced in these things manifestos don’t change people’s minds. Well, this manifesto did – in a positive way. We were told that you don’t move opinion during election campaigns by more than two or 3%. Well, we did. Massively.”
He is right. When Theresa May called the election Labour was polling around 24 percent (YouGov) and 29 percent (Survation). On election day less than two months later Labour won 40 percent of the vote – 10 percent more than Labour’s vote share in 2015 under Ed Miliband.
Most importantly, Howell maintains the election result “marked the end of the stranglehold of neoliberalism on British politics, which has dominated politics since the Thatcher era.”
At the end of the book he lists several reasons for the Labour Party’s extraordinary performance, including Corbyn being “a great message carrier”, the size of the Labour Party, the voter registration drive and the manifesto itself.
As a dual American-British citizen, Howell saw Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination first-hand in California. With the parallels between the insurgent Sanders and Corbyn obvious, Howell says he and others were influenced by the dynamism and energy of the Vermont Senator’s campaign, such as its “hard-hitting” political messaging. “Communications is all about building a story, building a narrative”, he explains. “That was very much on my mind – how could we talk and communicate our political arguments in that very clear, direct way.”
Indeed, arguably the influence of Sanders can be seen in the broad strategy the Labour leadership team settled on for the election – the creation of a “majoritarian coalition” around a positive and “transformational” offer to the public, as Howell explains in the book.
Howell was also impressed by Sanders’s use of social media to work around the mainstream media, and the massive rallies that propelled the campaign forward.
“Rallies are much more important in US politics than they are in British politics”, he says, pointing out that though “the Blairites openly say they fell in love with Bill Clinton” they dismiss “the idea that rallies are a good thing.”
“If you listen to the Blairites they will always say rallies are just preaching to the converted – and they will say social media is an echo chamber.”
Talking of Blair, readers of Game Changer may be surprised at the sophisticated communications and public relations tools and tactics used by Corbyn’s Labour Party. Focus groups were used to road-test slogans, polling companies and communications agencies employed, and there was even a “narrative consultant” on their books.
“Communications theory is a methodology. You shouldn’t assume it has a political bias. These are tools of analysis”, he says, explaining many have erroneously and nonsensically mixed them up with their first serious advocates in the Labour Party – New Labour.
“If you are trying to mount an effective political campaign you need to understand your audience, you need to understand what they are worried about, what they are thinking, what they will be persuaded by.”
“We are talking about persuading millions of people here”, he emphasises about the enormity of the challenge – and the success Corbyn’s campaign achieved. “We’re not talking about what goes down well with the hardcore of activists. We are talking about how you move people in a short space of time to get them to see your point of view.”
He highlights how Labour used a polling agency to talk to people about how they perceived Corbyn. “There was a fair amount of negativity towards Jeremy that was simply repeating what people had read about him in the media”, he says.
“But within all of that that the polling company did, one thing interesting came through it, which was that what people particularly liked about Jeremy was that he was a politician who went against the grain.” Also, Corbyn scored well on sticking up for working people, whereas Theresa May did not.
“We were being told by people in the Labour Party ‘Don’t make this election about leadership or about Jeremy versus Theresa because you’ll lose.’ But what that [the polling] was telling us was actually it’s not as simple as that. There are lots of things people like about Jeremy and therefore it’s not whether we make leadership an issue or not it’s how we make leadership an issue that’s important.”
In the book Howell highlights one particularly difficult leadership moment on the campaign trail – Corbyn’s response to questions from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the ‘nuclear button’ during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.
“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable”, he writes, noting Milne was also worried about how the Trident issue would play out in the media.
Surely, I ask Howell, nothing has changed? The lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner Corbyn will never say he will use nuclear weapons, while maintaining Trident will continue to be Labour Party policy. And, like Howell, the Tories will have watched Corbyn’s discomfort carefully and be ready to hit him hard on this come the next election?
He suggests two lines of argument to move the debate on. First, if one believes in nuclear disarmament, unilateral or multilateral, then “ultimately Britain’s nuclear weapons have to go into that process.” Long ignored by the mainstream media, Howell, like Corbyn himself, highlights the importance of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “What the nuclear powers were saying to the non-nuclear countries is ‘You sign up to this Non-Proliferation Treaty and in return we’ll disarm nuclear weapons.’ The second part of the deal has never happened. So it’s time the second part of the deal did happen.”
Second, Howell points to Corbyn’s Chatham House speech in May 2017, which he – Howell – was heavily involved in writing, and which deals with the question of using nuclear weapons. “That situation represents failure”, he argues. “Think about all the things that would have had to have happened for you to get yourself into that position, or for you to be forced into that position… you have failed as a prime minister in that situation… you haven’t done what you are there to do, which is to safeguard the security of the British people. So you’ve got to then roll the question back and say ‘What is it we need to do to make sure that no British prime minister ever gets into that situation where that is even a question?’”
Though he is no longer formally connected to Corbyn’s team, I ask Howell what Labour’s broad strategy should be for the next election. “An election can’t just be a rerun of the previous election”, he explains. “There will be some new things that have to be taken into consideration which are borne out of the political situation but I don’t think the core argument that we have been putting against neoliberalism and against austerity will be any different because those basic problems in society are the same.”
“And our answer to those problems is a Socialist answer and the Tory answer is a neoliberal answer”, he says. “There is a very clear political choice there.”
Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics is published by Accent Press.