Thursday, 2 May 2013

My LabourList article: Labour is beginning to pass the "Pub Test" once again

Published online here.

Labour is beginning to pass the “Pub Test” once again

MAY 2, 2013 12:39 PM

Author: John Slinger

In Tony Blair’s apocryphal tale, he recounts how it dawned on him that the 1992 election was lost only whilst canvassing a former Labour voter who was polishing his Ford Sierra and asking what Labour would do for people like him. This story became the mythical 'Mondeo man' popularised by Blair at the 1996 Labour Party Conference. It’s clear that the party is starting to do what’s necessary to prevent Ed Miliband having a ‘Mondeo man moment’. Our messages, manner and modus operandi are starting to pass the pub/gym/cafe/cab/staffroom/sports field canteen/supermarket/church/mosque/temple/synagogue test (Pub Test for short). In a nutshell, the Test asks us to frame everything we do and say in a way which convinces people in the above settings that Labour is worthy of their support.

The Pub Test can only be passed by addressing both message and manner. Our manner must be outward, not inward-looking; welcoming of good, new ideas irrespective of their source; and we must value listening as much as speaking. We must focus relentlessly on the concerns of the majority of ordinary voters, not of sectional interests. We must remember that ultimately, how the public perceives us is far more important than our own self-image. In the past, we’ve held ‘Big Conversations’, we’ve ‘reached out’, yet all too often voters experience an echo chamber of incomprehensible, irrelevant and intimidating rhetoric, conducted in a language of ‘isms’, far removed from their everyday concerns. Thanks to the fantastic efforts of the Policy Review led by Jon Cruddas, the National Policy Forum led by Angela Eagle, the Your Britain web portal, individual Shadow Ministers, Parliamentarians and perhaps most importantly, ordinary members, this is changing.

In terms of substance, the Pub Test doesn’t mean pandering to the Daily Mail’s agenda, or tacking to the right, or left, but it does mean speaking about issues of greatest concern to voters in a way they understand. Voters are more receptive to us than they have been for ten years, so now is the time to achieve ‘cut through’ and ensure that our credibility rises on these key issues. The signs are very encouraging. Ed Miliband has already achieved more than many leaders of the Opposition, by shifting the terms of the debate and setting the agenda in many important areas. Under his leadership, the party is starting to put meat on the bone and the signs are that those at the top understand the demands of the Pub Test.

On the economy – perhaps the number one issue talked about by ordinary voters, we are meeting the Test. This week, Ed announced six economic Bills on the economy, each containing the substance and delivered in the style necessary to spark voters’ interest. Simple titles with huge impact were used: a ‘Jobs Bill’ to establish the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee; a ‘Consumers Bill’ to tackle rip-off energy bills and train fares. A ‘Banking Bill for once not focused on discredited elements of the City, but on creating regional banks of genuine relevance to the current and future SMEs which will employ most of our population. This is the fuel our activists need to win the next General Election.

Labour is also showing the confidence to speak about sensitive policy areas that some elements of the Party regard as off-limits, yet ordinary voters regard as central to their political views. Whilst significant parts of the Government’s welfare reform strategy is flawed and is harming the vulnerable, and of course we would do things better and ensure greater fairness, but we mustn’t allow ourselves to appear to be the pressure group at Westminster for benefit recipients. Equally, when we conduct a partial mea culpa over the mistakes we made in Government on immigration, we must not allow ourselves to be painted as the party which opposes the Government’s overall goal of substantially reducing net migration (which is a policy outcome supported by the vast majority of the population). In both these cases, the Party is moving in the right direction, with Ed’s recent speeches on immigration and Liam Byrne’s skilful navigation of the welfare reform storms.

Another reason for optimism is the superb overarching theme of One Nation, a message befitting our times and entirely consistent with the Pub Test, showing as it does that Labour speaks for the national interest, not for special interest groups. Yet like all straplines, this one will only be truly effective if the messages and policies sitting beneath, support and bolster, rather than undermine this powerful central theme. Thankfully, we are already starting to see some excellent policies come out of the One Nation agenda – on requiring public sector workers to speak English, on new technical education in our schools to meet our skills gaps, on limiting bank bonuses, to name but a few. There will no doubt be more in coming months.

How will we know that a nebulous test such as this has been passed? It is hard to measure, there are no clear criteria, and the proof will only come in May 2015. Yet most Labour activists will have experienced their own equivalents of Blair’s ‘white van man moment’ in past years. We can feel instinctively when our party’s messages are inspiring a broad enough range of voters to win. Passing the Test should result in more and more people asking for membership forms because they see the Party as relevant to their lives again. When there’s a new policy announcement, the whole Party needs to give more weight to the views of ‘average voters’ rather than those of the leading lights of the left-wing commentariat.

Each Party member has a responsibility to make sure that the Test applies to content and delivery; to our policies and the way we practise politics. This will help us win the support of the coalition of people whose votes are essential for outright victory in 2015. It is in throwaway conversations in pubs/clubs/staff rooms, cabs etc that the next General will be won, not on Question Time, Twitter, or indeed on the blog in which you are reading this article. The Pub Test is not a dirty phrase, it can help us plot our route to victory.

John Slinger is a Labour Party member and is a candidate in the County Council elections. He is Chair of Pragmatic Radicalism.

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