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This column first appeared on Labour List:
At the same time that the term “spin” has gone out of fashion, the call for a Labour narrative has become ever stronger. We need to have a better understanding of how communications can and must work as a vital part of modern British politics. Before I go on, I should add that I have never worked for the party in any capacity, and while I work in communications, I’m far from being a spin doctor. This isn’t a self-justification, but a call for an understanding of the art and necessity of political communication.
Good Political Communications people don’t lie. They know it’s dumb. I know that most of the responses to this post will use the phrases “sexed up” and “dodgy dossier” (especially if the commentators don’t read past the headline) and I totally understand why. We have a misunderstanding of the role of political communications officers. We see a Malcolm Tucker/Alastair Campbell model of macho swagger and intrusion into policy making as the norm, when in fact a lot of what got Campbell into such trouble towards the end (and I’m sure inspired the character of Tucker) was well outside the usual communications remit.
Party communications are about presenting the arguments in favour of our policies, and against the Tories. They are about tying the policies together to form a coherent story of what Labour is about, what we are for and why we deserve the trust and votes of the electorate. They aren’t there to set policy, nor are they there to debate its pros and cons. That’s what the party itself is for. That’s where Campbell’s generation went wrong. They confused the medium with the message and as a result the outcome of communication trumped the outcome of policy too often.
As the world develops, and the way messages are distributed change, the Labour press and comms team will have to learn to be flexible. They will still craft the message, but its dissemination will more than ever happen through members on Twitter, Facebook and blogs like this. Innovative spinners will see parallels on this to the trend towards community organising as a model. People trust people who aren’t paid to tell them things. We’ve always known that the best way of getting our messages out is on the doorstep, but technology is expanding what our notion of that “doorstep” is and can be. Good spin doctors will want to utilise the different ways members will adapt the message to suit their own audiences, rather than try to retain central control at the expense of nuance.
So far, so positive. But there is another side to political communication that we are failing on too often. In the West Wing, when being taught how to handle a press conference, Vice Presidential candidate Leo McGarry is told “If you don’t like what they’re asking you don’t accept the premise of the question”. All too often, we accept the premise of the Tory attacks on us, on the government we left behind and on the things we hold dear.
If we start using the language of “non-jobs”, if we start to accept not that cuts are going to happen (they are) but that its ok that they are going to happen – particularly cuts that lead to unemployment – we accept the premise of the question. Nobody does a “non-job”, they fulfil the functions they are employed for according to the priorities of their employer according to their strategic plan. If we want to return to being able to provide all but base utilitarianism in the future, we need to stop denigrating jobs which perform those “nice-to-have” functions that actually make life worthwhile. Like diversity workers and arts officers.
Labour would make cuts, yes, we would be forced to. We are also being forced to implement Tory cuts on a local level. But we don’t want to change either the employment prospects of those who work for the state and its agencies, or the provision of services of clients of the state and its agencies in a permanent way. Our cuts would be a brutal necessity, not a rebalancing away from inefficiencies.
I understand that in the short term and to all of us who are frightened about the effect the cuts are going to have on our lives, this may sound like the worst of spin. But ideas are important, and they are important because they effect change. If Labour is going to be in a position to build anew a thriving public sector, we need to lay the foundations now. And at least a part of that is in convincing the people of the necessity of doing so. We need good effective communication, clear red lines of difference between us and this government and their cruelty and we need to remember not to accept the premise of the Tory attack on the most vulnerable and the things we cherish.
Mark Ferguson at Labour List has written about how Labour must be wary of the fact that 49% of people still blame us the most for the cuts. I completely agree that it is essential that we continue to keep this at the heart both of our policy and our presentation of current and past policy as we go forward.
The problem I have, is that we don’t know why they blame us.
Do they blame us because the Tory narrative that we overspent on public services has caught on? It’s a populist narrative that probably does have a lot of traction despite both a lack of serious veracity and the fact that until the crash the Tories were planning to match us for spending.
Do they blame us becuase we failed to regulate the banks and failed to balance the economy properly away from fragile economic areas like finance, leaving us too exposed to the crash? If so they are quite right to do so.
It is vital that Labour conduct extensive polling and focus grouping to understand the reason for the blame so it can formulate a response to the question that resonates. That may not mean accepting wrongly apportioned blame, but it will mean moderating the language of regret to match the expectations of voters.
I suspect the truth is that the answer is mixed, but is mostly the former (if I had to I’d put it at an 80:20 split) which is difficult for Labour. We can and should apologise for and learn from the latter, but I don’t believe we did massively overspend before the crash. We can promise to ensure that investment is sustainable, strengthen and make more independent the OBR and give it some teeth to ensure that there are guarantees that we won’t be able to over-stretch in the future. That way we can promise not to do in the future what we don’t believe we did in the past, while adding independent verifiers. But we can’t promise not to invest. Investment will be needed. It’s how we articulate that while working hard to regain credibility that will be the difficult thing.
After scenes of confusion and idiocy from a small but loud minority of marchers last weekend there has been a great deal of controversy over what the Labour Party should and shouldn’t be doing in relation to the anti-cuts movement. There has been on Labour blogs an almost existential howl. If Labour aren’t with the marchers on the barricades, where are they? If they aren’t articulating the anger of the weak what are they for? If they don’t exist to bring down the Government, what are they for?
I understand the emotions driving these calls. The cuts are starting to be felt. Redundancy notices are going out and the ripples are being felt everywhere. People are scared and they are looking for champions. The easy thing to do would to be for Labour to seek this easy popularity, to stand up and call for the Government to go. But however easy, however tempting, it isn’t the right thing for the Labour Party to do.
Don’t get me wrong, as individuals, Labour Party members and politicians and should be out there on the marches. I’ll even go so far as to say that Eds Miliband & Balls should both address the big March for the Alternative that is being formally organised and run by the TUC. But they can’t and shouldn’t address every march that is springing up. Partly because a lot of them are being organically driven and organised by people Labour should be raising up – not speaking to from platforms – and partly because a few of them are being organised by a rabble of numpties up for a ruck. Partly they shouldn’t address every march because they will not have a new message each Saturday and will dilute the power of thier message through repetition (as the marches themselves may well do). But mostly, because being the head of a protest movement is not what the Labour Party is for. And the second we start to believe it is, we self-defeatingly condemn this country to another term of Tory Government.
We may not like it much, but Labour lost the last election democratically. I don’t subscribe to the lazy commentators view that the public voted for either a hung Parliament or this coalition (neither were on the ballot) but this Government was formed democratically and there will not be a revolution. Anyone equating the horrible monetarist policies of this Government with the hideous political and economic oppression suffered in countries like Egypt and Tunisia have lost their sense of perspective. Yes, this Government’s policies are going to have terrible consequences, with the poor at the sharp end. But when we say sharp end in the UK we still mean it metaphorically. When we dislike a Government as much as we dislike this one we have a chance to oust them in 4-5 years as an election is called.
Of course we must be the Parliamentary voice of the weak and dispossessed. Part of being credible in opposition will be in trying to curb the excesses of the evils this Government is bringing about. We must be the voice of the people who elected us even when not in Government. But as important as this is, it is more important that Labour are there to offer an electable alternative. It is the Party’s job – first and foremost – to provide an alternative different enough to undo the harm the Government is doing, radical enough to engage our supporters and electable enough to appeal to a majority of voters. That has to be our unbending focus. Becuase if we get swept up in the romance of opposition, these vital tasks will not be fulfilled. We will look like a great opposition, not a great alternative. And if we don’t make ourselves electable again, we will not only be unable to support those being crushed by the Tories now, but will franchise the Tories crushing another generation. And another, and another. Until that tough lesson is learned.
I think Labour’s leadership get this. I hope Labour’s membership get this. I hope it doesn’t take us another 18 years to understand what the Labour Party must be and cannot be.
Let me be very clear, as I said in my post about why we should vote Labour, I don’t look forward to a stint out of office because vulnerable people are going to suffer under this Government. But we are where we are, and now we have to take this situation and run with it.
Long term, this situation has tremendous strategic advantages. We have a chance to renew the Labour Party and we can once again be the natural home of Left of Centre voters, who now know that in most places (more on the Green Vote at a later date) Labour really is the only alternative to Tory Government.
The Liberal Democrats will have a hard time for a very, very long time – possibly ever again – making the case that they are to the left of Labour. They aren’t, and never have been. Their version “fairness” was always a raising of the middle at the expense of the Top leaving the poor ever further behind. They have agreed to early, damaging cuts in areas like the Child Trust Fund and Tax Credits. There will be tax cuts for the middle, paid for at the expense of the services on which the most vulnerable in our society rely.
Another meme the Lib Dems ran with, was that they aren’t “politics as usual”. Well it’s true that this is an unusual set up, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough to detract from the fact that they are in Government – with ministers in every department – and so will be held to account for all the decisions of that Government, whether they be ones they actively vote for, or those they just facilitate by abstaining on (a very cowardly deal indeed on the insidious – and deeply illiberal Marriage Tax Allowance).
Frankly, for the next few years Labour’s campaign materials write themselves. And the Lib Dems will never again be able to use the line “only the Lib Dems can stop the Tories in XXX”. God alone knows what they’ll put on their leaflets now. Certainly the one I got through my door during this election has proved to be a laughable lie.
The Lib Dems seem to have gained so much from this coalition. As they did from the debates. As with the debates, I think these gains will be fleeting. Unlike the debates I think they will do serious long term damage to their prospects. The Lib Dems have to make this work – the Tories do not. The Tories can push their agenda far, far harder than the Lib Dems currently realise, and – particularly this side of any referendum on AV – the Lib Dems will have to go along with them. They need to prove that coalition government works, the Tories – who will campaign against voting reform – do not. Look at how close the Tories are hugging the Lib Dems – full coalition and a seat in every department. The Lib Dems underperformed in the election (as did the Tories) and weren’t in a strong enough position to earn all that, and their obvious bluff of “talks” with Labour wouldn’t have earned them alone. The Tories aren’t unastute politically, and must realise that the closer they tie the Lib Dems into this Government, the harder it will be to break that stranglehold, or that image int eh minds of the electorate.
So how do Labour respond? Well one fo the reasons I have focused more on the Lib Dems in this post than the Tories, is because I believe this election has shown Labour the way forward, and the gift of the Lib Dems going in with the Tories make this easier. Our future is not in fighting the Tories for third of the electorate who support them no matter how bad, but attracting progressive voters from all constituencies.
Labour must keep fighting for it’s poverty reduction policies. They are the best of all that we have done. We must continue to fight for union and workers rights – they are a part of what defines us . But we need to completely revisit our attitude to civil liberties. We should not oppose any attempt to remove compulsory ID cards, extended detention etc. and should attack the ConDem Government on their vicious and arbitrary immigration cap and their Marriage Tax .
We need to not just rely on those who left Labour for the Lib Dems over issues like Iraq to come back because they have no other place to go, but give them a positive reason to come back to Labour. We also need to attract Lib Dem voters who never voted Labour before, but who are dismayed at the direction their party has taken. We can do this by stopping trying to woo floating Tory voters with misguided post 9/11 security measures and playing a weak hand on regulation. We are no longer in a post 9/11 world – or a post 1992 world for that matter, but a Post Credit Crunch world where regulation is no longer seen by a majority of the public as intrusive.We have the opportunity to be “New Labour” no longer, but become the progressive liberal Labour movement some foolishly dreamed would be possible with Clegg and his Liberal Tories. If we do so, we can create the strong progressive movement the 21st Century deserves.
Every thing I ever have read before every election I can remember tells you that this is the most important election ever. So I’m not going to do that here. I do however, see that this is the most unknowable election of my voting life. There really is all to play for and with a landslide majority unlikely for anyone, what happens at this election could affect our democracy and elections for years to come.
Labour aren’t perfect. I know that. I’ve been an internal critic of some decisions for years, ranging from Iraq to ID cards. We’re tired, and we sometimes forget how to do what we are here to do. If re-electing Labour were all about the party alone, I’m sure some activists would welcome a break and a chance to regroup.
I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t because I know that that would let down the people Labour is here to serve. Individual MPs may have let them down before, but we, Labour, must not and will not let them down. If we are at our best when we are at our boldness, we are at our boldest when tilting at the windmills of poverty. Dreaming what once seemed an impossible dream of it’s eradication, now brought so much closer to reality by our actions here and abroad.
The narrative of this election has been that of mending our broken politics. I celebrate that narrative and agree that and end to the first-past-the-post system would be a laudable achievement. But I ask us not to forget that democracy is not just about how we vote, but what we vote for. At this time of economic crisis, when cuts will have to be made, I – much as I may personally benefit – don’t want to be rewarded for my middle class life, but pay fair taxes to help those who will be worst hit – first and deepest – to stop those cuts taking us backwards in poverty reduction.
I could use this post to lay out how bad I think a Tory government would be, but far better writers than me – Particularly Johann Hari - have already done so with breathtaking clarity. But I’d rather talk about why, at this time and in this election, we should vote Labour. Int he Guardian endorsement of the Lib Dems, their analysis included this line: “Labour’s record on poverty remains unmatched “. Now I understand the seduction of the “Liberal moment”, I too want a shift back on civil liberties and reform of the voting system. But not at the expense of the party “umbilically linked to the poor” at a time when both other main parties are offering deep and swingeing cuts, and routinely attacking the kind of public sector services, tax credits and benefits that the poorest in society rely on. It is too high a price for me. I hope – as I have outlined previously - that Labour take from the rise of the Lib Dems lessons on these issues and a greater understanding of their electoral significance for a core part of their electorate. I can’t however, offer up deep and devastating cuts by an unconcerned government as a price worth paying.
So I will fight for Labour to be in Government – protecting their core principles and fighting for the poor. In coalition if it comes to it – alone if we need to, we must never forget what Labour is for and why we fight. Our poverty reduction measures may be unfinished, but they remain – undiminished – a beacon of hope and a vision for a better world.
Usually, it has to be said, I find Nick Clegg unmemorable. I have been known to describe him as mind butter, given that my brain can’t seem to stay focussed on what he’s saying, his words just slide right off. All of which, of course makes him an ideal leader of the Liberal Democrats. Given their strongest electoral asset tends to be their inability to be pinned down on specifics, be all things to all voters etc., his very unmemorableness serves them well.
The third party will tend to pick up voters from those who are interested in politics, but are disaffected with the two main parties. It is my strong instinct that this will tend to lead to more people leaving the party of power to the third party at any given time. So for the last 13 years, in my experience, it’s been the disaffected left who have left or not joined Labour over issues like the war, tuition fees (which I don’t think is a left wing issue, but that’s another post), ID cards etc.
Nick Clegg on the other hand seems to come from the right of the party – certainly economically. He was an Orange Booker and has frequently cited market liberalism as a cure for economic ills. He’s not a stupid man or a naive one, so he also knew exactly what he was doing when he eulogised Thatcher recently, pledged to cut the deficit with cuts only, ruling out tax increases (something even the Tories haven’t done) and harking back to the miners strike of the 1980s. Despite the key message being about reigning in bankers, he knows these are dog whistle messages to the Tories that they can work together as long as the Tories do so to Vince Cable’s time table. Swingeing cuts but not just yet seems to me to be the message Clegg is giving.
The irony that the Liberal Democrat’s weakest leader since David Steele is in a likely position to have the most power a Liberal has enjoyed since Lloyd George is lost on no one. But personally I can’t imagine a more poisoned chalice. The Lib Dems have for so long been the place for people who are discontented to pour their hopes, usually without it having to mean anything in reality (though of course they have disappointed locally, from the mess of Southwark leisure, to the 70% of wind farm rejections by Lib Dem councils). They have always been able to comfortably criticise from the sidelines without the pressure that the responsibility of governance brings. So if Clegg is forced to pick a side, and does so over issues that the Lib Dems really care about but make little impact on the lives of ordinary people (I’m talking PR of course – again another post for another day) they will find themselves suddenly under scrutiny, supporting a party (either way) that a great deal of their supporters can’t stand and no longer a great repository for disillusioned voters.
The Greens must be praying very hard for a hung Parliament.