Labour’s message isn’t getting across. Let’s turn down a great chance to get it out there.
I have a feeling my choice for the most politically depressing day of my life last year is different to most within the Labour Party – Wednesday 13th July, when Hackgate forced News Corp to withdraw its bid for BSkyB.
Not because I had any burning desire to see Sky News transformed into the UK wing of Fox News when the law inevitably thereafter fell into place to allow political bias in television broadcasting, but because I knew then that Rupert Murdoch was willing to play the long game with Ed Miliband. Lose a battle today, get cold revenge at the next election. It’s unlikely Ed will make it through 2015 without receiving a trial by fire that makes the treatment doled out to Kinnock and Foot by The Sun pale by comparison.
Of course, at the time Ed was riding high off the back of ‘winning’ Hackgate. He’d just slayed the dragon – the questions weren’t around consequences, but around where he’d go next. Friends would tell me - he’d just gotten his Clause 4 moment, good heavens, shut up and be happy! (Indeed, my depression at the time felt all the more odd because I’d voted for Ed at the leadership election.)
Zoom forward seven months to now and things feel a world away from that scorching July. Hackgate has faded in the public memory. Our message isn’t getting across. People don’t know what Ed, or indeed for that matter Labour, stands for as a whole. One day we’re saying the cuts are too far and too fast, the next day we’re saying we accept them (in the eyes of the public, at least). The rest of the month we barely give the economy a mention.
Ask a random member of the public what Labour is against and they could probably give you a list. Ask them what we’re for and, short of a lucky guess of ‘everything as it was before the election?’, you’d probably get nothing. But the problem is, we’re going to need them to know something that we’re for by the next election, and ‘things as they were’ isn’t it.
Which is why I think the pressure on Maurice Glasman, Ed’s (ex?) policy guru, to say no to the offer of a column in the newly launched Sun on Sunday is a foolish move which shows zero recognition of political reality. The public won’t credit us for taking this stance – if, indeed, anybody even notices – and we now instead miss out on the chance to get our message out to a likely audience of 3 million people every Sunday. A minimum of political gain for a potential maximum of political loss.
We need to recognise that, for all we may dislike him, Rupert Murdoch generally ‘gets’ a large sector of the public – coincidentally, the sector which most strongly swung away from us at the last election, and the sector that we need to win over if we ever have a hope of getting back into power.
Sure, they didn’t like the Milly Dowler hacking revelations, but that’s old news to them now. With the closing of the News of the World and the commissioning of the Leveson Inquiry, they thought the crime had been punished. That the Sun on Sunday will in all likelihood be the same paper with a different name won’t matter a jot to them, if the ongoing strong sales figures of the Sun and the likely high sales figures of the Sun on Sunday are anything to go by.
It’s a difficult truth for many to face within the Labour Party, but The Sun is the most popular newspaper in the country, and The Sun on Sunday (short of the unlikely event it gets waylaid by a last-minute exposé on phone hacking for the first issue) will probably be the most popular Sunday paper too. People liked the News of the World, even if they didn’t like the methods it went to for its stories, and Labour loses out from forcing a fluent advocate of our values to turn down an offer of a weekly spot to talk about them in.
Is Murdoch weaker for us forcing Glasman to say no? No. Are we stronger for it? Quite the opposite. The leaking of Glasman’s first piece, which would’ve made for a fantastic segment in any conference speech, shows us exactly what we – but more importantly, what the wider public – are missing out on for not having him as a regular columnist.
But more than that, now Glasman won’t be writing the column, the Sun on Sunday has a spare space going. Sure, it could end up going to a Labour-leaning writer, but given the public criticism of Glasman suggested he’d be persona non grata within Labour if he even dared to consider speaking from a pulpit set up in the hellfires of News Corp, I doubt that will be the case. Instead, we’ve now probably thrown away a potential lone friendly space in a paper that will have nothing but vitriol for us at the next election. Don’t be surprised if the spare column now goes to someone willing to give the Tory case to 3 million every weekend.
For all his occasional faux pas (none which in any case would’ve put Sun readers off of voting Labour – though we’d have probably needed someone on damage control at the Guardian each weekend) it was a mistake to pressure Glasman to say no to Murdoch and to place misguided principles over political realities. We need to stop holding a grudge against the driver of the car he’d have been shouting our message from, and start focusing on the people who’d have heard it.
Why Ed should be worried about Eric Joyce’s alleged assault
This morning it’s being reported that Eric Joyce, Labour MP for Falkirk since 2000 and former Shadow Northern Ireland Minister, was arrested on suspicion of assault last night in the Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons. It’s alleged that he headbutted and punched Conservative MP for Pudsey, Stuart Andrew, and assaulted several other Conservative MPs and a fellow Labour MP.
A serious allegation no doubt. However, the bigger picture around this is more than just what could normally be shrugged off by Labour as an isolated incident, as the infamous Prescott punch during the 2001 election was. Should these allegations be true, the consequences could be profound for the Labour Party and the next few years of British politics as a whole.
Should this case reach the courts, Joyce could find himself being convicted for assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH), which could be punished by anything ranging from a fine to five years’ imprisonment. A prison sentence of more than twelve months would immediately disqualify Joyce from Parliament and necessitate a by-election – however, the case could be that Joyce ends up having to resign his seat before he is sentenced if he is charged for assault and pleads guilty.
In January last year, when Eric Illsley, at the time Labour MP for Barnsley Central, faced charges for expenses fraud Ed Miliband called on him to resign after Illsley pled guilty, and would doubtless have to do the same for Joyce if he pleads likewise if the case goes to court. The by-election in Barnsley didn’t matter so much as it was always an obvious Labour hold, with the Lib Dems needing an inconceivable swing to win given their poor polling at the time.
However, contrast this with Falkirk. Labour has a majority of 7,800 over our nearest opponents, the SNP, and they’d need a swing of 7.7% to take the seat. Compare this though with the Inverclyde by-election in June last year after David Cairns’ untimely death, where the SNP managed to achieve a swing of 15.5% against us at a time when Labour was doing relatively better in the polls than it is now (averaging 42-43% in YouGov’s daily polls compared to 38-40% now), and you can see why Ed must be praying that Joyce isn’t guilty of his alleged assault, with the SNP either leading or tying with Labour in Scottish polls and with the SNP sweeping both Falkirk constituencies with big swings in the Scottish Parliament elections last year.
To be losing by-elections in Opposition would surely be the death knell for Miliband, even if not losing seats to the Coalition parties, and it would be difficult to just dismiss a loss in Falkirk as being down to regional factors given the growing questions over his leadership. If Ed wants to survive as Labour leader until the next conference, he either needs to hope Joyce is innocent – or to throw everything Labour have got at Falkirk.
Tyron Wilson, Chair of Essex Labour Students
A curiously Labour disease (or ‘How Labour should learn to stop worrying and love 16th century French history’)
Over the last few months I’ve noticed a debilitating disease that strikes down Labour supporters I normally take to be amongst the most intelligent and insightful that I know. It’s one that, despite all their greater judgement and all history’s advice telling them that it achieves absolutely nothing, tempts them into spending hours on end attempting to tear fellow Labour supporters apart on social networks. All the while, supporters of the Tory-led government look on amused, giggle a little and chink glasses in celebration of this most undignified spectacle.
Readers, I talk of course of the rather tiresome obsession many Labourites on Twitter seem to have with stoking up arguments in the everlasting cosmic battle between Blair and Brown (last result – something of a score draw between the one who thought it was ever so witty to still use the nickname ‘Bliar’ and think Iraq to be the be all and end all in the matter, and the one who thought Blair won by default having never presided over a recession, without the merest sense of irony to his argument. Both examples are entirely fictional but I wouldn’t be terribly shocked if they’d actually occurred at some point in the last year.) and conducting the same war through the prism of ‘Ed Miliband: Footian albatross worthy of ritual sacrifice, or saviour of all that is good and holy about Labour?’.
And so it’s gone that, despite us now having a leader who pledged to put an end to the constant feuding between the two camps (and one who has, to an extent, at least succeeded in that aim within the PLP), amongst the membership online, jibes with the poise of a brick in a bull’s face fly between the two camps seemingly moreso than ever before, with no day being complete without the joys of a tweet along the lines of it being futile to ignore the achievements of the only man who won three elections for Labour on the trot, and the joys of seven hundred rabid tweets in response calling him a war criminal and a closet Tory, and the joys of my face collapsing into my hands and weeping a thousand tears before pouring myself another glass of cheap wine and pledging to never read Twitter again before I lapsed into manic depression induced by the dullness of the supporters of the party I love.
Here’s an idea. How about we actually put into action the same techniques as the man who won us three elections on the trot? No party ever strolled into Number Ten off the back of online civil wars over whether their last leader was the best or worst they’d ever had. When we won in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were the main arguments being had by our supporters over how good or bad our legacies were from Wilson and Callaghan? When the Conservatives won on default last year, was it off the back of constant feuding online between Tory supporters who were still harping on over Thatcher being the best thing since sliced bread compared with Heseltine or how Portillo was the party’s big missed opportunity? At times it often seems to me that the greatest gift the Conservatives get amidst the British electoral landscape is the painful predilection for Labourites with a soapbox to spend half their time rallying against each other rather than spending all their time focusing their energies on the opposition and how we can be better.
Yes, there are criticisms to be made of Ed Miliband’s leadership, but for goodness sake – if we can’t make these criticisms through the prism of how we can be better for the future rather than how he fits to models of how we won in the past, then we don’t stand a chance. Lapsing into online wars over New Labour jokes (and, just as much, starting wars with inflammatory jokes, no matter how harmless) is the symptom of a party far too concerned with how well or how badly it did in the past. Parties don’t win elections on their records, but on the promise they hold for the people. I only direct you to Churchill in 1945 and Major in 1997 to back me up on those ones – two elections that would’ve been easy victories for the Conservatives were the opposite true.
During the Wars of Religion in 16th century France, a faction arose amidst the fierce warring between the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholics, which became known as les politiques – a faction which cared less about which religion a person held, but more about them observing the rules and obeying a strong leadership. Moreover, a politique ruler was one who governed without attention to these pointless and damaging wars and focused more upon what was best for the country. It probably comes as little surprise that it was les politiques who triumphed in the end. It is time for us to have a strong politique equivalent faction within the Labour Party at the membership level to match the growing sense at the PLP level and in our leadership – one which recognises that it isn’t 1985 anymore, and that the differences between Blair and Brown were far more superficial than they were meaningful. The Brownites among us are not representative of the return of the politics of Benn, and the Blairites among us are not representative of capitulation to the Coalition’s policies, contrary to popular belief on both. Our leader came into power calling for an end to the bitter poison politics of the Blair/Brown era – when will our membership finally catch up?
Ed’s learned the lessons, but can he pass the test?
(Before I begin this article, I should probably give full disclosure: I’m a first year politics student at the University of Essex, and have been a member of the Labour Party since 2009 and am a new member of the Fabian Society, having joined the week before the Conference at the same time I bought my ticket. I self-identify on the moderate left of the party and voted for Ed Miliband in the leadership election.)
I entered the Conference Hall on Saturday morning fairly sure of what to expect from Ed Miliband’s speech, having accidentally read a spoiler of its themes for myself by reading the Guardian article early that morning, in my wakeful daze having not thought that it was likely a leading article from the Leader of the Opposition would likely have some connection to the speech he was about to deliver that day. Doubtless most of you are aware of the basic thrust of the speech, so I shall skip to the critique: to boil it down, I was impressed with Ed’s repeated and correct assertions for the reasons why Labour lost – the key point of substance (I shall critique the third later) being that we had been simultaneously overbearingly statist in some areas and had too slavishly idolised the key tenets of the free market in others, but moreover that we had tended to take these approaches in the wrong areas when it came to connecting with the public – hence the public decrying of target culture and managerialism in public services, and leaving Middle England too susceptible to the financial crisis by allowing markets to let rip when wages couldn’t keep pace, forcing them to turn to borrowing and creating an unstable economy where inequality bred financial instability - indeed, the key point of the whole crisis: note how it was triggered by the excess of subprime mortgages lent and borrowed in the absinthe dream of economic overconfidence.
Miliband is correct in the analysis that Labour lost as the offer of little but more of the same for the future past ‘securing the recovery’ was painfully inadequate and unappealing to a public that had tired of the top-down bureaucratic culture within the public services and the neoliberal consensus - the latter element being my personal opinion on why no one party failed to win the election, as no one major party articulated a viable (or, indeed, any) alternative to this financial system despite the havoc it had just wrought on the lives of so many within the country as a result of the biggest market failure the world has ever seen. His ideas, therefore, of incorporating social justice into the heart of our economy through measures such as the living wage - one of the few solid policies up on offer at the moment prior to the policy review, and a powerfully populist one that fits into the leitmotif of the fairer economy which it’s safe to say the next election will likely be based around – and promotion of co-operatives impressed on their own and went down well in the hall.
However, there are two prospective key weaknesses here: the ‘fairer economy’ is an admirable aim, yet one which we will find difficult to seize as our own without policies beyond the likes of the living wage – at which point we possibly leave ourselves susceptible to the charge of being the ‘same old tax and spend party’ from our opponents and many of the voters who came to Labour in 1997 but left from the 2005 election onwards, although given Miliband mentioned the risks of the overly statist and purely redistributive government as being one of our failings under New Labour, I’m confident and willing to hear what he potentially offers as further solutions for government ensuring that social justice is at the heart of the economy. Be that as it may, the susceptibility to being labeled as the same old Labour which belied us the 1992 election may mean that we do not get a proper hearing in our arguments for a fairer economy – for though it would be a more stable one, much of the public will not necessarily connect to it in quite that way for the second reason I’m about to go on to. Let us not forget that Major won the 1992 election in the midst of a recession, and that no matter how much pain the Tory-led government inflicts upon the public it will almost win the next one if Labour cannot be taken seriously on the economy, so we will need to have something to offer to the public as well as the idealism of a fairer economy preserving communities if we are to be given a fair hearing and be considered as credible treasurers of the public purse. A part of that has to come with admitting a painful truth: that we were responsible for overspending to an extent prior to the financial crisis: though this was not the main contributing factor to the deficit. On this, the facts are there: a structural deficit of about 5.7% of GDP was in existence prior to the global financial crisis, as we did not fully adhere to Gordon Brown’s Golden Rule and the PSNCR limits as advised by the EU. Granted, we were not alone in doing this, but nonetheless we were overspending to an extent. However, this is not an intellectual capitulation to the Tories, and nor should it be interpreted as so: admitting that we overspent is a different argument entirely to the one over the current cuts, and would serve more as a sign to the public that we had changed and recognised where we had gone wrong on the economy – after all, saying cuts are required is not the same as saying we need cuts as fast and hard as possible, due to the current context of our economy. We are, at least, saying that cuts would be necessary, but whilst we need to drive home the point that the current crisis is not even mainly Labour’s fault, we cannot get away with absolving ourselves of all culpability otherwise the public simply will not take us seriously in the future on the economy.
And, to my second point on a prospective weakness: the language that we use in advertising ourselves as the party of government and re-establishing Labour as a party to be trusted on the economy. Though Miliband’s speech was well suited to the Fabian Society, in speaking in terms of broad ideas and concepts to a mainly academically-minded and politically involved audience, and he clearly doesn’t have problems with public speaking (having connected very well with the audience through his self-evident passion, and having mastered the art of putting them at ease with alternately amusingly vainglorious and self-deprecating humour), much of the language he has used in putting out Labour’s stall hasn’t really been hugely effective in communicating what we stand for to the public – indeed, it’s clear he recognises this himself, having mentioned that the ‘squeezed middle’ was likely a term for the scrapheap, after his by-now infamous performance on Radio 4’s Today where he gave six definitions of the term. But still, Labour’s current poll ratings are more a result of disenchantment with the governing Tory-led coalition, rather than Ed having captured the public’s imagination – as is apparent from his personal approval ratings, which, while high compared to Cameron and Clegg, are barely hovering above neutral in one of the lowest ratings at this point in his tenure as Leader of the Opposition compared to those that have gone before him (although this may, admittedly, be more down to his policy of underpromising in order to prevent heightened expectations which cannot be met). However, this is also a likely result of the very airy, vague language which he has used up until this point which is meaningless to the majority of everyday (would it be too ironic to use the phrase ‘Alarm Clock’?) Britons – with particular reference to key elements of the speech, such as the third point which expounded that Labour had only governed when it had been ‘the standard-bearer of the progressive majority’ in the country. A glaring problem with politics in this country currently is the tendency of all three parties to slip into such clichéd language that means nothing in practice and therefore leads to further disenchantment with politics amongst the public – a basic rule of thumb on this that I’ve found to hold true is that if opposing a maxim would be pretty much unheard of (‘I’m against being progressive!’, ‘I don’t think society should be bigger!’), it isn’t worth saying unless you have something solid and tangible to back it up with.
This is an area where Ed could learn a lot from the campaigns of the other leadership candidates – Burnham and Balls in particular, who came up with ideas grounded in day to day life which were easily communicable; ideas such as the land value tax or increases in house building to deal with the painful shortage of social housing in this country. The latter point in particular was harnessed to much rapture during the Democracy Dragons event at the end of the day by Emma Burnell, who proposed a tax on bankers’ bonuses in order to fund a large-scale construction project of social housing – a masterstroke which would at once deal with the issue of bankers’ profligacy (one of the few issues which unites Guardianistas and Mail readers in outrage, and one we should exploit to the fullest given the government seems determined to turn this issue into an own goal), housing shortages, and go some way towards dealing with that old chestnut of anti-immigrant sentiment – the idea that ‘they get all the houses’. This led to a line from Mehdi Hasan which forms the crux of my argument here, and neatly crystallises my point – ‘You can have left-wing populism too, there isn’t just right-wing populism’. The main problem Miliband faces in communicating how he has learned the lessons of Labour’s failures comes in his inability thus far to communicate with the public how the Party has and will change in a populist manner.
In this, I would say the two key figures of the day were Deborah Mattinson, there as the representative of Britain Thinks, an organisation whose findings ought to be key in the orchestration of Labour’s campaign in the next election, and Lord Glasman, who expounded upon a lot of Miliband’s vision in his keynote speech of a Labour Party committed to nurturing a localist and community-based outlook – a socially traditionalist ‘Blue Labour’ vision married to an economy more considerate of developing local communities and restoring co-operative traditions; a vision which could very easily subsume and alter Cameron’s garbled idea of the Big Society (particularly as an idea for making easy cutbacks to public spending – something which ought to be in harmony with and not a substitute for localism.). Miliband has the knowledge of how we lost the voters over the last thirteen years: now he needs to show that he can appeal to these voters, and Glasman and Mattinson, in concert with the ideas derived from Lakoff’s ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ (a treatise referred to during the Conference by Chuka Umunna which holds that framing the issues that they can connect with voters aspirations is far more important than policy – a tactic used to great success by the Republican Party in the USA over the last few decades, and in fitting with the idea Miliband expressed in his conclusion that we ought to make our politics the common sense of our age – something New Labour excelled at) have the potential to be key figures behind any manifestation of this.
And so, to conclude. Miliband was convincing in his assessment of the many areas Labour went wrong over the last thirteen years in our disconnect from what the public wanted – be it through overcommitment to the power of the free market to fuel equitable distribution and improved public services, and through subscription to the view of the state as possessing all the wisdom in top-down judgement in public services – a disconnect which manifested itself in public discontent with New Labour, be it through the mocking of the tabloids and our abandonment by them, or the eventual financial crisis which clattered into our nation and which we failed to seize upon and explain effectively. However, his visions have potential weakness (which could admittedly be already realised and be being dealt with in the policy reviews of the next two years) in how they leave the Party’s economic credibility and in how Miliband communicates them – though he is personally a good speaker, he needs to adopt a language accessible to the wider public and speak in concepts with which he can connect with them and their hopes and aspirations much as Blair did thirteen years ago. One easy way he could do this would be to adopt some substantive and costed tangible policies, such as land value tax or a construction project of social housing funded by a one-off bankers’ tax. If he can restore Labour’s economic credibility and make Labour accessible to the wider public once more in these ways, then victory at the next election would be much more likely.
(Two postscripts: Miliband’s idea on underpromising, which I questioned him on on the day, is one I see the merits of but am also wary of. He gave a convincing answer in that New Labour was able to come into power off of a fairly modest manifesto in 1997, but I do fear that underpromising could potentially lead to disaster without an aforementioned solid policy which we can both guarantee and which would help to re-establish economic credibility amongst the wider public – we will, after all, need the chance to overperform to our underpromising, which we won’t be able to do if all the parties are dismissed as liars and we lose out as the liars who promise a lesser future than the others!
Secondly, the various events of the day itself were almost universally enjoyable and engaging, with the exception of the lunchtime Young Fabians fringe event, which had all the energy and excitement of an accountant’s funeral. The audience was noticeably unengaged, and the speakers did not seem ideally suited to the event – with the possible exception of Richard Serunjogi, who would have been far better suited had he had more pace to his speaking, and the definite exception of Rushanara Ali, who had a real charisma to her and clearly has a big future ahead of her within the Party. Overall though I was disappointed that an event which was focused on ways of re-engaging the youth vote with the Labour Party was in itself so very dull and unengaging!)
Economic food for thought…
“The IMF bi-annual analysis could only use data up to and including August 2010, which did, admittedly, look very encouraging. However, the 5-month lag on government action to output means they were commending the actions of a certain Alistair Darling.
Sadly, the coalition has not maintained the momentum of encouraging confidence and growth. As a result, all the following will have a bearing.
- In the three months to July, the UK ran a trade deficit in goods and services of £13.2bn.
- OECD talking about UK, Canada, China, India, France and Italy “stronger signals of a slower pace of economic growth in coming months”
- Accountancy Co BDO reporting that UK businesses are more pessimistic than at the depth of the recession.
- According to the REC/KPMG Report on Jobs for August, permanent placements rose at the slowest pace in ten months.
- The prospect of job losses in the public sector is hurting house prices. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ headline house-price index dropped to -32 from -8, the sharpest one-month fall since June 2004’”
The wholehearted sponsorship of Irish cuts (which have now led to a 12% fall in GDP since enacted) by the IMF also bears thinking about! Ultimately, it’ll be the 2011 Q1 growth (or lack thereof!) that will be the first proper flag of the coalition’s economic effects…though we’ll probably be able to hazard a guess or five from the 2010 Q4 report given the emergency budget of 22 June, which will be taking full effect by then. It’ll be interesting to see how those actions will fare against the economic godsend that is the Christmas shopping season!