Amongst the most frustrating things about Labour’s current performance is its failure to display a sense of urgency. The past week saw a Queen’s Speech from a government that has achieved laughably little in the year since its re-election — u-turning on most of its Budget, flailing on Europe, grasping at straws with spaceport legislation, relying on just a single Secretary of State for heavyweight policy ideas, and in dire need of an HR intervention.
On the opposite side of the House, we have a Labour Party whose much-expanded membership is hungry for ideas and eager to move forward. Labour members, particularly in London, are confronted with an overabundance of events designed to harness their ideas and expertise — only this weekend, members were presented with a choice of two all-day conferences dedicated entirely to Labour’s future.
And yet, while Gordon Brown was making an extremely effective, positive case for the EU at Fabian Summer Conference, arguing that Britain should stay in the EU to address international tax evasion, John McDonnell’s star-studded, inaugural State of the Economy Conference, which garnered excellent feedback, yielded the following Press Association tweet: ‘Labour helped to create “unfair tax system” when in power, Shadow Chancellor says’.
As a devoted comms consultant, I duly started repeatedly banging my head against the wall. Realising after some time that this wasn’t solving the problem either, and loath to join the ranks of those who have fallen into the unfortunate habit of bemoaning Labour’s flaws while offering no solutions, I’ve instead come up with some unsolicited advice on what we can start doing right now.
Find out what the country needs us to be doing
We seriously need to start caring about Nuneaton. Nuneaton, Glasgow East, Westminster North, and every one of the other 647 — we need to care about their concerns first, have answers for them second, and give up on them never. This is no revolutionary idea — from Stella Creasy religiously arguing that the first question on the doorstep should be ‘What can Labour do for you?’, to Owen Jones reiterating at pains that voters don’t think in terms of left and right: anyone looking at political party performance through non-ideological glasses will agree that competence in addressing the challenges of the present has to be the foundation for a radical agenda for the future.
Make sure the country knows what we stand for
It’s been months since Conservative Party Conference, but still, some nights, I wake up in a cold sweat with a racing heart, confusedly muttering ‘Security-Stability-Opportunity’, my mind crowded with vague images of white men in suits. Not a vision of society I would willingly sign up for. But one that many up and down the country have signed up for — joylessly, for lack of a better option. Labour has been fuzzy on what it stands for for a long time now. It’s time to craft a new, simple yet compelling, message that will cut through the noise and start sedimenting in voters’ minds ahead of the next general election.
Be aware that certain words come with baggage
Capitalism, socialism, neoliberalism — to be on the safe side, maybe just steer clear of any -ism — rent controls, renationalisation. All words that have a rather unfortunate history of previously either failing, or being used as ammunition by the right to caricature the left, as desperately clinging to allegedly outdated, over-intellectualised concepts that no voter can personally relate to. That doesn’t mean we should give up on the valuable concepts behind some of these words; it only means we need to stay aware that certain words have been mangled by history and could stand being replaced by a more contemporary and intuitive vocabulary.
We should learn from the plight of religion that we’ve moved past the point in history where a combination of guilt-tripping and moral outrage will result in any sort of behaviour change. A Manichaean vision of the world where public is good and private is bad — where people are helpless puppets and banks are satanic overlords — only goes so far in explaining the complexities of reality. We should take on Conservative policy not by denouncing its intention but by tearing it back into the tiny shreds of misguided ineffectiveness it was originally assembled from. We can start by persuading business that we understand we won’t all be going back to trading a sheep for five chickens anytime soon; that business consists of complex, heterogeneous agents within society; that it offers as many opportunities as it offers challenges; and that it is the role of a capable Government to steer it towards offering more opportunities than challenges.
Take care of the Labour brand
Labour is not a business. A business only has to get enough people to buy its product and make a profit. Labour has to get an entire country to trust Labour to run it. As such, every little thing we, its representatives, do, is liable to be magnified and reflected back onto the organisation as a whole. Intense public scrutiny was always in the job description.
Don’t do the job of the hostile media for them
Why are we still talking about the ghosts of factions past? There is no need to draw a parallel between every challenge Labour is facing at the moment and that one by-election in 1987 which totally exemplified the dichotomy between social democratic compromise and the rise of XYZ. Journalists and academics can cheerfully pontificate on the past without harming their own political capital; but every reference a Labour member makes to the Party’s embattled past only reinforces Conservative myths about our party ‘record’. And finally, constructive engagement with the hostile media, though likely an uphill battle, is also an opportunity. Kill them slowly with kindness.
Get better at publicising what we’re doing right
Given the deluge of laments about the state of Labour, it sometimes seems like we have to start from scratch. Quite the opposite: up and down the country, Labour councils are doing brilliant work on a daily basis — so let there be coverage. Labour’s recent mayoralty wins have shifted attention towards the opportunities offered by the devolution settlement; but why have we waited for a Government Act to pay attention to the rest of the country? There’s no time to be lost in shining a light on the underreported achievements of MPs and councillors. We should neither settle for shouting into the storm of negative coverage nor bow down to it. If we offer hard facts and evidence-based case studies, we can mobilise local achievement to strengthen the Party’s national image.
Stop hoping for the best and start taking action
A politics of hope is one we can all get behind. But even better is turning that politics from an abstract concept into small, easy steps that in time will solidify into a track record of credibility and competence — because people will remember our actions more than our words.