On Tuesday 17th March, the Labour MP for Hartlepool, Mike Hill, resigned ‘with immediate effect’ due to him claiming legal fees on expenses when he was accused of sexual assault. It now leaves Labour in a tough position, as it means they have to contest a byelection in a key red wall seat. It will be a test to see if Keir Starmer’s leadership has been successful in returning Labour voters who went rogue in the previous election.
In 2019, Labour lost huge parts of their red wall, notably in the Midlands, with key names such as Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) and Ruth Smeeth (Stoke-on-Trent North) being kicked out of office for a Conservative alternative. However, even in the North Labour suffered huge electoral losses. I found all of this surprising as a Midlander because, whilst my home constituency is Conservative, there is a very real anti-Tory sentiment that exists, mostly left over from the Thatcher era. A sentiment which individuals such as Dennis Skinner were the physical embodiment of, as a former miner himself.
This is a sentiment that the Hartlepool Labour Constituency Association have tried to reinforce with the news of Hill’s resignation. It was very interesting that the statement from the local Labour association put greater emphasis on what Labour does for the area, and the need to elect “a Labour MP who will stand up to the Tories after a decade of neglect” (Hartlepool Mail, 2021). This is not to say that they condoned Mike Hill’s actions, but that they tried to reframe attention on the byelection and protect their reputation. It is an obvious case of spin.
This is an issue that Moloney and McGrath talk about in their book: ‘Rethinking Public Relations’ (2019). They argue that PR should “reclaim persuasion and influence as its cornerstones (rather than relationships and reputation)” as it reflects the reality of PR practice.
This is a difficult question for PR scholars to answer, and an argument that has been heavily criticised… but do they have a point?
The Edelman Trust Barometer (2021) shows that whilst trust in governments rose by 2 points, of the four institutions (Media, NGO’s, Business and Government) they are regarded as the least competent and most unethical of them. Political PR thus seemingly struggles to build and maintain a positive reputation with the general public. Therefore should they embrace persuasion and influence as part of their toolkits?
My answer is a true politicians answer.
Yes and no, although I will try and explain why…
Whilst political parties, and indeed maybe the wider PR industry, should be more accepting of persuasion and influence, it does not mean that reputation is not important. I guess the key point is that reputation cannot be relied on for success. As seen by the 2019 election, and indeed the election of Tony Blair in 1997, the losing parties relied too heavily on their reputations to carry them and to keep support. The result… landslides against them both.
Reputation is still important to securing and maintaining support from your base, and, arguably, could be a part of the argument of persuading publics itself. Yet, if reputation was solely important to voters then political parties would continue to stay in power. That isn’t the world we live in as issues and views can change rapidly, especially in leadership transition periods for the different parties.
The median voter theory exemplifies this whole point.
*This is a concept that can be aligned to the UK’s quasi-two party system, but is especially relevant to the USA’s two party system.
Simply put, this theory is that most voters are situated in the middle and that parties will move towards that central location to appeal to more voters. This is important as it highlights Moloney and McGrath’s point of the importance of persuasion and influence, to get voters to think your way and believe in it, but it also splits voters into distinct sections: base voters and swing voters. It is the median voters who decide elections, not base voters, and while reputation will play a part in making their decision, parties need to effectively persuade that demographic to win. That might not be the ethical answer desired, but it is relevant to how our current system operates.
In the end, PR in public affairs will always struggle to be seen in a positive light. The real question is now whether Moloney and McGrath are actually right? I would argue that their argument is quite broad about the objectives of political PR, as the aims are situational to the specific voter demographic. Nevertheless, their analysis is relevant to median/swing voters, and while it is important to note that they don’t outright reject it, I would agree with their sentiment that reputation is not necessarily integral (or the cornerstone) to political PR.
This byelection will test that sentiment. With Nigel Farage now (supposedly) “retired” from the UK political scene it is unlikely the Brexit Party will enjoy the same successes of the 2019 election. It means that there are 10,603 votes up for grabs in this byelection, and so will really question whether the poor reputation the Conservatives have in the North will help Labour hold on to their seat, or if voters will be persuaded by the work of the current administration to vote for them.