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Star Interview: Sheffield council officer turned PR guru at the heart of a great political upset

Steve Howell was Labours deputy director of strategy and communications throughout the snap election campaign. Picture: Huw John
Steve Howell was Labours deputy director of strategy and communications throughout the snap election campaign. Picture: Huw John
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Last summer the idea of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sweeping into 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister briefly became a genuine prospect.

Theresa May’s gamble of increasing the Conservatives’ majority had failed, leaving Britain with a hung Parliament and Corbyn announcing he was ‘ready to serve’.

Since then the status quo has largely been restored – May is still in office, bold enough to approve UK military action in Syria, Brexit negotiations continue unabated and the Tories are capable of winning Commons votes thanks to a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

But a member of Corbyn’s inner circle argues the June 2017 poll still marked a huge turning point for Labour and changed the face of politics.

Steve Howell – who spent 20 years in Sheffield, first as a student, then as a trade unionist, campaigner and council officer – was Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications during the snap election last year. He was involved in the key decisions, and tells all in a new book called Game Changer.

“I really, strongly felt there was a story to be told,” says Steve, who offers a first-hand account of the twists and turns involved in steering a modern campaign. “This was a very unusual election. It was unusual for someone who was so far behind to close the gap in the way Jeremy did. There were two major terrorist attacks in the middle of it which led to a suspension of campaigning, and we broke convention in a number of ways. We used social media far more than previously, and Jeremy did more big rallies. He was on the road nearly all the time. And we defied conventional wisdom right from the outset – we weren’t going to run away from any issues, no question was too difficult for us to face directly.”

It’s true the Conservatives made a calamitous miscalculation. Labour made 30 gains, including Sheffield Hallam, and increased its share of the vote by the party’s biggest amount since 1945. Steve was jubilant, and attributes the outcome to the elusive ‘Corbyn factor’.

“There was evidence that showed people liked his authenticity and integrity, and the fact he went against the grain. What a lot of the pundits and people in the commentariat hadn’t really digested was what they were being told by the electorate in the EU referendum – that they don’t trust mainstream politicians. Every major party was pro-remain and the electorate voted against. Jeremy had quite a distinct position; he was critical of the EU, but still pro-remain. Had the remain campaigners listened more to Jeremy, the result might have been different.”

Steve was born in 1954 near Liverpool, where his American father Brandon had a teaching job. Much of his upbringing, however, was in North London; he attended a grammar school that had, he says, ‘delusions of grandeur’. “Even the prefects wore gowns. It was very oriented towards going to Oxford and Cambridge, and the done thing was that you were to do PPE at Oxford.”

His schoolfriend Peter Mandelson – one of the architects of New Labour – followed the Oxbridge path of reading politics, philosophy and economics, but Steve had his heart set on studying in the North. “I really wanted to get out of the leafy suburban thing. I didn’t know much about Sheffield, but I went up on a visit and just fell in love with the place. The people were so friendly.”

He took a degree in economic history at Sheffield University, graduating in 1977. But the city gave him an education in another sense.

“Since my early teens I’d been a bit of a radical and on the left. What Sheffield introduced me to was real, down-to-earth, working class politics, which I’d never experienced at all. I met some of the most wonderful people who have become lifelong friends. I know ‘salt of the earth’ is a cliche but they were.”

Steve also met Kim, his ‘soulmate’ and wife of 40 years, at the university while collecting money for striking steelworkers. He later worked on the shop floor at Firth Browns for three years. “I was nicknamed the ‘posh shop steward’. The Sheffield humour is fantastic, I think.”

Redundancy struck, though, during the cutbacks and ‘de-industrialisation’ of the early 1980s. “Which was terrible. That was another learning experience, I was going in with men a lot older than me who were being told they were going to be made redundant. They had no hope for the future and were breaking down in tears. It was a very tough time. That’s something you never forget.”

In 1982 Sheffield hosted a United Nations anti-apartheid conference and Steve was asked ‘at very short notice’ if he would step in and organise it for the council. He had been heavily involved in setting up the Sheffield Campaign Against Racism in the late 1970s, a ‘very successful, broad-based’ effort.

“I don’t think any other city had anything quite like it. It brought together the ethnic minority groups, the black and Asian community, all the main churches, Labour, Liberals, unions, communists. It was effective in keeping the influence of the National Front out of Sheffield.”

The council took him on, and from 1986 he was the authority’s international officer. His main job was acting as secretary of Local Authorities Against Apartheid, which Sheffield chaired. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 meant his post was no longer needed, so he joined the press office before carving out a career in journalism, freelancing as a sports writer for the Sheffield Telegraph, among other things. He moved to Wales, where Kim is from, and founded Freshwater, a PR consultancy with offices in London and Cardiff, in 1997.

He took a leave of absence from Freshwater to join the Labour team, second in command to ex-Guardian correspondent Seumas Milne. He had barely been cleared for a parliamentary pass when the election was called a year ago tomorrow. At the time he was working on a novel – the follow-up to Over The Line, a book about the use of drugs in sport – but had to put his fiction writing plans on hold.

Game Changer, then, arrives as the first in-depth account by any of Corbyn’s confidants about the events of 2017. “Everybody I worked with in Jeremy’s team is still working with him, and wouldn’t be in a position to write it, even if they had time. There have been a couple of books by journalists about the campaign, which frankly I think were pretty poor in terms of accuracy.”

Steve and others thought Labour should ‘campaign to win’ with an ‘inspirational’ manifesto, while head office preferred a more defensive strategy, causing a wrangle over the best approach almost straight away. The manifesto – titled For The Many, Not The Few – broke new ground as intended, Steve believes.

“The printed edition was gone almost within hours. I couldn’t get a copy. Online, there were four million page views. People were really interested. It was written in a very accessible way, it wasn’t the usual bland manifesto that has been so typical for some time.”

Meanwhile Labour used its digital budget to buy certain terms on Google AdWords, a system that allows advertisers to bid for phrases so their advert appears next to search results when people look up particular subjects. ‘Dementia tax’ – the Conservatives’ aborted plan to make people with assets above £100,000 pay for their social care – ‘Brexit’ and ‘shoot to kill’, referring to Corbyn’s stance on police gun tactics, were all purchased in this way.

“We were getting a lot of click-throughs, into six figures,” says Steve.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has caused considerable unease about the way data is used, particularly if it could sway the result of a ballot, but Labour’s activities were ‘totally above board’, Steve maintains.

“We used the channels and data available to anybody to use. I think with the Cambridge Analytica thing, it’s important to disentangle the rights and wrongs of it. Data has been at the heart of election campaigning forever, what’s different now is there’s so much more of it and more ways to analyse it and target people. Provided you don’t breach people’s privacy, there’s nothing wrong with that. Society has got to decide what those ground rules are and then everybody’s got to stick to them.”

That Labour lost the General Election is an incontrovertible fact. Is Steve’s book a piece of spin – and are supporters merely celebrating failure?

“There are some people within Labour who will never reconcile themselves to Jeremy Corbyn as a leader and who’ll never be happy until they see him gone. But the vast majority of members, MPs and activists were delighted with the outcome. They realised how hard it was to go from where we were in the polls to where we ended up.”

The Conservatives were forced to drop proposals to cut winter fuel benefits and axe the ‘triple lock’ on pensions, as well as scrapping dementia tax, he notes. “If the Tories had won an outright majority, all these nasty things would have been in the Queen’s Speech.”

Steve, who stood down as deputy director in September, has been ‘watching with interest, with a heavy heart’ as the controversy over allegations of antisemitism in Labour has played out.

The crisis deepened when it emerged Corbyn had posted a comment on Facebook in 2012 querying the removal of a mural that depicted Jewish financiers controlling the world.

“I know Jeremy is a very decent human being. He has fought all his life against racism and is not anti-semitic. He was obviously caught out not looking at that mural and just assumed it was an issue of artistic freedom. I’m sure he feels utterly devastated, it’s the last thing on Earth he’d want to promote.”

Equally, what does Steve think can be learned from Jared O’Mara’s victory in Sheffield Hallam? The new MP swiftly had the whip withdrawn amid accusations of homophobia and sexism.

“Because it was a snap election, the process of selecting candidates was not very satisfactory. Jeremy has said he would not allow again a situation where the members had so little influence.” Candidates are already being picked in target seats well in advance ‘through a proper process’.

Steve is unsure whether he’d return to a similar role, as Labour now has a lot of ‘talented, committed young people’ – but he wouldn’t rule it out. “Never say never.”

'Kinnock's private Hillsborough visit would be impossible now'

General Election campaigning had to be suspended twice in less than a month when terrorists launched deadly attacks at Manchester Arena and London Bridge last year.

For Steve, the Manchester bombing revived memories of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, when he worked for Sheffield Council. One day in the aftermath of the stadium catastrophe, the then council leader Clive Betts asked Steve to travel to Manchester to meet Neil Kinnock, Labour leader at the time, and escort him to Sheffield ‘to see what had happened’.

“It was to be a private visit, with no media involvement, and I would accompany him for the whole day, going first to Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, then to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, and finally to talk to traumatised staff at the mortuary,” writes Steve in Game Changer.

“We spent the largest part of the day at the hospital where Neil spoke to Liverpool fans still recovering from injuries, and to their relatives and friends. It was a harrowing situation that required the utmost sensitivity, and I thought Neil handled it with genuine empathy and solidarity.

“You could not organise an under-the-radar visit like that now. The advent of 24-hour news, the internet and social media mean a Labour leader’s movements are almost impossible to keep private – not least in the middle of a general election. We were worried in 1989 that Neil’s visit would look like he was politicising Hillsborough. The risk of that with the Manchester attack, in the midst of a campaign, was infinitely greater.”

Game Changer is published tomorrow, April 18, by Accent Press, priced £15.99 in hardback and as a £7.99 e-book.