A false narrative has developed about Labour that must be rejected comprehensively by a party aiming to govern in six months. It claims that Labour has become alienated from virtually the entire electorate. Our response to date has been ineffective. Here are some suggestions for how we may succeed in future.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. We should take heed and refuse to be cowed by something as illusory as a false narrative, even when we have sometimes fed it. When a narrative gets you down, the only thing to do is change it.
Step one: remind ourselves and the country that our values are not antithetical to those of the majority of voters. This doesn’t require a new New Labour, rather we must recast our core beliefs, and then personify them in our actions, so that they resonate at this particular moment in politics.
Remind voters that the clue is in our name: Labour. We are the work party, not the welfare party. Our founding father, Keir Hardie, who from age eight supported a large family single-handedly, did not fight all his life for the right to claim benefits, but for the right to enjoy the dignity of well-paid, unexploited work. We founded the modern welfare state and will always believe it to be a defining feature of our civilised society, but we must now communicate more effectively that Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and colleagues are focused on founding a new economy defined by labour not benefits.
Step two: set out policies that provide clear examples of how our values work in modern Britain. These should ideally be counter-intuitive to grab the attention of voters, activists and the media. Think how Labour reclaimed the law and order issue from the Tories in the late 1990s. Chuka Umunna’s heartfelt belief in “the British dream” of entrepreneurialism and small business shows how this can be done. Merely denying that we are anti-business is not sufficient. We must show, practically, that we are pro-business and pro-fair and dynamic markets. Rachel Reeves has similarly shown that our compassion need not mean we lack credibility on reforming benefits.
We’ve had new, blue, purple and “in the black” Labour. Perhaps now it’s time for a “tough love Labour” showing that we’ve moved beyond a reflexive opposition to Tory reforms onto an agenda of contribution and responsibility over entitlement and rights. We represent places where there is growing concern about immigration, so we must be at the forefront of the debate about the worry many have about rapid changes to their communities and a fear that parts of the country are becoming little more than vessels of economic activity. By avoiding the debate, we have helped create a vacuum of rich pickings for UKIP. Yvette Cooper’s recent speech is a welcome contribution to the debate.
Step three: place all ego and internal politics to one side and choose spokespeople who are particularly able to reach the parts that we haven’t been able to reach of late. We must field people who can connect with voters from across the political divide. Our ranks are full of them, with a small but not exhaustive list including Gloria de Piero, Rachel Reeves, Stewart Wood, Dan Jarvis, Liz Kendall, Sadiq Khan and Luciana Berger. Jim Murphy shows how it’s done and Scotland’s gain is our loss at Westminster.
Step four: in order to counter the narrative that the Labour leadership is a detached metropolitan elite, all candidates, current MPs, shadow ministers and key advisers should spend a day a week from now until the election shadowing ordinary people in their paid or unpaid jobs (i.e. including childcare, or caring). The panopticon prison of a party’s back office and the entire Westminster and media bubble, cannot be escaped by some timely focus groups or street surgeries. Labour’s politics would benefit from a large dose of the reality that becomes apparent when we look outwards not inwards.
In his 2013 speech about reforming Labour after the Falkirk scandal, Ed Miliband said “we need to reach out to others outside our Party too” and suggested primaries for Parliamentary selections where the incumbent is retiring and membership has dwindled. Many of us encouraged him to push forward with this. Primaries would be another way of showing that we reach out beyond the sometimes dwindling and moribund local party structures.
Step five: do not seek plaudits or medals for the above. Simply do it without fear or favour and let the experiences influence speeches, press releases, policy reviews and then enthuse the broader Labour movement.
It’s not too late. Ed Miliband has shown that he can change the narrative, seize the initiative, challenge vested interests and be a visionary leader. Each member of the Labour Party must have faith in our individual and collective ability to change the narrative. Together, we can and must show the country that we are far better than the fabrication our detractors are portraying. If we do this effectively, the narrative will change.
John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant.