The United Kingdom was a very, very different place when Lance Price worked in communications for the Labour Party between 1998 and the 2001 General Election.
Party leader and then prime minister Tony Blair had a renowned spokesperson in Alastair Campbell, who often found himself as the story on the News at 10 rather than his party’s policies.
Many in and around the Labour Party have been critical of the party’s communications strategies since Blair left Downing Street, but Lance Price believes their strategy is now as it should be and is optimistic about their future.
“It’s been a transformation,” says Price. “I am in a position where, for one reason or another, to different degrees, I have been critical of Labour’s comms for more than 10 years under different leaders.
“It comes as a great relief to see both the leadership that you can give unqualified support to a communications team that is extremely professional and doing the job they should be doing.
“Immediately it seems it’s already having an effect on the way Labour is perceived in the country so I am very impressed.”
Current leader Keir Starmer has hired healthcare communications specialist Ben Nunn as his Director of Communications, with Labour Party veteran Paul Ovenden becoming his deputy.
Price is optimistic about their work and believes Starmer has built a strong team around him.
“I don’t know (Ben and Paul) personally so I’m not in a position to base judgement on that,” Price admits.
“But I think they have both got good track records that I am aware of. They seem to have built up a structure and got staff who know what they’re doing and so I wish them well.
“Having the right staff is very important. Having the right Director of Communications is very important. But the lead does come from the leadership itself and it’s quite clear that the challenge of communications strategy that the Labour party now has is a reflection of Keir Starmer’s approach to politics.
“He is capable of looking forward – not just a week or a month or a year – but four years. He’s got a very clear idea about where he wants to take the party; where he wants to be in four years’ time, so it’s not all about chasing exactly the headline that you wanted today. That could be tactical, but it’s not strategic.
“I think that the appointments that he’s made in both the communications team and more widely in David Evans and others – shows that he’s got a grip and that the party is in safe and professional hands at last.”
Many have been critical of Boris Johnson’s communications during the COVID-19 pandemic, while praising Starmer. Former journalists have offered and turned their hand to government communications, but Price believes this isn’t necessarily the best way to go about it.
“I have never been convinced that former journalists necessarily make the best political comms people because you tend to have the training that you had that you brought with you, that is your first professional experience.
“It’s very important that people understand the media and how journalism works and having some experience in working with an organisation can be a huge benefit.
“But the job of being a journalist and the job of doing political comms are very, very different and you can only cross from one to the other if you are very clear in your own mind about what the new job entails and that you’re no longer a journalist.
“Some of the people that I have had as a great team working for me when I was the party’s Director of Communications; some of the best of them had never been journalists and they had always worked in the party or they worked in communications elsewhere.
“So I don’t think it really matters where you’ve come from, and having said that, I have seen some very good journalists go on to do political communications and they have fallen flat on their faces because they couldn’t make the transition and they sort of couldn’t realise that you are in a very different job and therefore the demands of you in that new job are completely different.”
Televised lobby briefings were pitched as a key idea to boost the government’s COVID-19 communications. While the Prime Minister’s irregular televised briefings continue, his spokeswoman Allegra Stratton has not yet started her own televised briefings as planned.
On that topic, Price says: “If you’re going to have on the record briefings then it seems bizarre not to have them on camera because they’re sort of on the record but not completely on the record.
“There’s always been a lot of hostility to that – particularly in the Labour party – they believe that ministers, they’re the ones elected, therefore they should be those who are accountable for parliament and they should be the ones accountable for the public.
“But I am quite relaxed and supportive of the idea of having an on-camera spokesperson. So it’ll be a very interesting experiment to see how it works. But that person – Allegra Stratton in this case – will be directly accountable for the PM and the PM must be accountable to the parliament for what she says; so it has to be a very close relationship between the two of them.
“Alastair clearly could have done it for Blair and the government that I worked for and he would’ve been absolutely fine on camera, but he was a very unusual individual in the skills that he brought to the job and also in his closeness to the PM.
“Whether Allegra has got the same closeness to Boris – I don’t know. There will definitely be tensions and difficulties along the way.”
Price isn’t so sure, though, that an opposition party should take the same approach to their communications.
“Do I think an opposition party should do the same? Probably not, because the job of the opposition is to look credible.
“So I think it’s much better done by the political leadership because that generates political benefits; you’re raising their profile and you’re maximising the options that you do have to get onto the media to present your team rather than having a person who is speaking for your team.
“But I also think that if people are briefing on behalf of the opposition, it should be possible to quote them by name because I think the more transparency that you’ve got around government in general and politics in general – and that includes the opposition – the greater level of trust you get from the public. Obviously that’s something that has been lacking for a severely long time now.”