…which is admittedly a tall order for the Labour leadership candidates in both the UK and Scottish parties.
But it is what we need: as New York Governor Mario Cuomo said back in 1985: “we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.” And the former is what Labour has been failing to do big time.
At the UK level, we have seen from Patrick Wintour’s masterful and damning account of the imcompetence of the Ed Miliband leadership that one of the highly paid advisors, imported from the Obama campaigns, thought as follows:
[David] Axelrod was appalled by the low quality of the ideas being discussed, which he derisively characterised as “Vote Labour and win a microwave”.
In Scotland, it now seems an eternity that we have now suffered from the lack of imagination and articulacy necessary to be competitive in, let alone to dominate the political agenda. Since “there shall be a Scottish Parliament …I like that…,” can anyone remember a memorable Labour Leader quote? From Henry McLeish (other than “a muddle not a fiddle”?) From Jack McConnell?
And even if these can be excused by Mayor Cuomo’s distinction between campaigning and governing, what about Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont and now Jim Murphy? Between them they can muster “bring it on”, “something for nothing” (albeit usually misquoted), and “I am not a unionist” by way of memorable phrase-making.
This tongue-tied performance is as puzzling as it is frustrating. Puzzling because all of these people have the background and knowledge to pick out and to produce the verbal expertise required; all surely know of the advantage gained by John F. Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric, for example, or will admire Martin Luther King. Or closer to home, the legendary prowess of Nye Bevan (“Into the negotiating Chamber naked”…”an emotional spasm”) and in their own political lifetimes, of Neil Kinnock (“the first in a thousand generations…” “I warn you: do not grow old, do not get ill, do not be ordinary…”)
From these examples, we can see that by poetry, Cuomo did not mean formal verse, of course, although a conference speech in Alexandrines or heroic couplets might usefully supersede the over-rated (and occasionally disastrous) fashion for not using notes.
Instead, he means two things. The first, in these examples is the use and indeed manipulation of words, their sounds, their order, their rhythms, to capture and retain the imagination of the listener and the public. The second is to prove to those same listeners that you can transcend the everyday: that you are the same as them in having hopes, dreams, aspirations for themselves, their children and their grandchildren.
The poetry of politics is the use of words to show people a vision – and connecting them to it. In contrast – and this is the frustrating part – Labour politicians have chosen to campaign and to oppose in the dullest of prose.
In the Scottish Parliament, following the defeat of 2007, we sat back and waited for the SNP to implode and to turn on each other as Fundis and Realos. Quite sensibly, they refused to do so, and we lost the opportunity to set out our vision of a better Scotland in a better UK and a better world. Instead, in 2011, the SNP used a simple, persuasive form of words, shorter than a haiku “Be part of better. Vote SNP,” captured the collapsed Liberal Democrat vote and achieved its majority and mandate to hold the independence referendum. In the meantime, Labour had been a passive and mute opposition, behaving (in prose) like a government in waiting while all the time losing support.
Likewise, at Westminster, two things emerged. First was that after 2010, Ed Miliband had avoided the Labour Party splitting as it usually does after electoral defeat – and that he had done so not by galvanising us, but by putting the party into a medically induced coma. Secondly, and incredibly, it was following the example of the Scottish party, attempting to win an election by not losing it – through keeping a core vote and looking to nudge it up to 35%.
In both cases, the result has been catastrophic. By not moving on, Labour has volunteered itself for all of the opprobrium which comes with failures in government while not offering the vision of a better life for the electorate.
To go back to Mario Cuomo, we have been campaigning in prose. In Scotland, this has been especially suicidal as the independence referendum gave our opponents the absolutely perfect opportunity to capitalise on the advantages of vocabulary and semantic which “Yes” afforded them: positivity, freedom, self-determination, better future, progress, better life for our children and grandchildren, etc, etc. All of this was worthless without a credible currency or economic plan to back it up, but it was effective rhetoric which captured many imaginations, and a result, Better Together and Labour were always in the shade and playing catch-up (to mix metaphors).
At the end of the campaign, Labour was so beaten that it could not even be proud of its referendum victory, which had saved the people of Scotland from potential economic ruin. And so by the autumn of 2014, we had the SNP in full command of the public debate in Scotland, where they stayed and improved their standing right through to polling day in May.
It is too late now to look at what might have been: if Labour nationally had been able to articulate a more positive alternative, if Scottish Labour had established a vision of mutual support and sharing, of the potential of common ownership of national assets, of revenues from the southeast of England redistributed for the benefit of Scots. Of ties of brother- and sisterhood.
And we can see that when such ideas came to the fore, it was too late. Gordon Brown was wheeled out – and spoke brilliantly. David Torrance described Jim Murphy’s oration at the Tollcross rally as “the speech of his life”. Ed Miliband weighed in at the same event. But no-one was listening to the message.
The reason for that is again that we had failed over the longer term of years and decades to use language which reflects our values, and which transcends our inevitable failures and re-affirms the aspiration which we share with voters.
The only good thing to come out of this debacle is that we can start afresh. Kezia Dugdale is correct when she says that after such a comprehensive defeat, all that remains of Labour is our values: we are a party of fairness and equality, and “everything else is baggage.” Ken Mackintosh says something similar, as do most of the candidates for the UK leadership.
This is welcome, and indeed must be the foundation of Labour’s rebirth, along with solidarity – “we achieve more together than we achieve alone”.
These give real backbone to our mission, and indeed more than match the “ Scotland-first and hell mend the rest” of the SNP and the spiteful greed of the Tories. But these will mean nothing until they are fleshed out with measures to create the progress needed to build a fair society.
And none of this will count unless all aspects are articulated with craft, with heart and with imagination. In other words with poetry.
I am waiting to see who can provide it: whoever does manage to get values, actions and poetry together will get my vote as leader.