Oi! Would-Be Labour Leaders – Do You Want A Strategy?

I have received an email from Yvette Cooper’s campaign. It was very smart and used the Nationbuilder software, which was impressive. So far, so good.

As was the statement “I want to be the Leader of the Labour Party and the next Prime Minister – not to be something but to do something.” Again, it is fine – but only really what you would expect – or is it?

Having already made my point about the way in which Labour leaders should campaign (in poetry, and leave the dull prose to governing I Will Vote For Whoever Can Bring Poetry To Social Democracy (Metaphorically Speaking). http://wp.me/p3f2py-eh), Yvette’s statement appears to me to miss the mark of what she (or any other Labour leader) should be telling us: what they think the task is, and how the intend to approach it.

Non-one needs to be told that Labour has gone backwards, in some places – above all here in Scotland – to pre-1920s levels. And it gets still worse: last time we polled so low, we were on the rise as a newly formed and wholly untested party. Now we are falling on the basis of our record in government and – worse yet – we have been severely punished in opposition. Our next leader needs to understand that Labour has no future unless we acknowledge that we will not be a party of government again in the foreseeable future without drastic and profound changes.

There is a lot of very heavy lifting to be done, and quite frankly, I am reluctant to vote for any candidate who does not say “before we can think about government, we need to be an effective opposition; and before we can be an effective opposition, we need to be clear what we stand for, and what we are against.”

In contrast, part of the disaster that it emerges was Ed Miliband’s leadership was the way in which such discussions were shut down, or at least confined to a small band of advisors and trusted confidants. As a result of confining our policy making to this Hall Of Mirrors, we became scared of our own shadow. Fear of losing became all, especially as it was hoped to win on a strategy based on a minimum vote of 35%. (Yes, based on minimum vote. That is how conservative we were.)

In fact, the most significant personality of the 2015 election may not have even been present: perhaps it was Gillian Duffy who ruined Gordon Brown’s day and campaign in 2010.

The ghost of ordinary voters like Mrs Duffy popping up and asking legitimate but awkward questions was part of the fear factor which infected Labour 2015 like a dormant bacillus. It was kept under control until the Question Time audience took Ed apart on the issue of overspending. By then, it was far too late to explain Labour’s public expenditure record, and above all, there was no background or framework of our values against which to justify it.

Then the election was all over, with the EdStone (another Hall of Mirrors product) serving as a mockery of our fate.

What I really want to see and hear is a strategy for the future of Labour, like a failed company or brand or corner shop might have. This is all pretty basic business management stuff: you need some VSOP: a Vision, a Strategy to achieve it and the Operation Programmes to support that strategy and make the vision real. And timescale and milestones.

How about this for a try?

Vision: this is in place: “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more then we achieve alone.” This is excellent:  ordinary people can identify it in their own experience of family, community, workplace, even their football team. If they do not know that we stand for this, it is our failure, not that of the voters.

Strategy: how we pursue that vision can be focussed on key programmes based on supporting core values. I propose three of them: Liberty, Equality and Solidarity, to be realised by using the legislative and institutional tools available.

Bevan referred to the Labour Party using democracy on behalf of the people to attack privilege. That is a good start, along with parliament creating new liberties, and new laws to protect and enhance equality, and redistribution mechanisms to make Britain fairer.

It is doubtful if one in a million people could define Labour’s political aims in any such terms. That is our failure, not that of the voters.

Operational Programmes: these are how each of these strategic goals can be served by the different means at our disposal. And I do not think at the stage, our new leader needs to set them out: instead, they should make a virtue of asking others how to populate the operational programmes for a future Labour government.

Let us ask trade unions how their members and all workers can best be served. Let us ask parents and teachers how schools can be made to work better. Let us ask patients and health professionals what the priorities for the NHS are. Let us ask police and magistrates and prison officers the best way to keep our communities safe. Let us ask businesses what they need to succeed. Let us ask how they can work together with Labour to make Britain better. If they do not look to us to do so, that is our failure, not that of the voters.

What I want our next leader to do, in fact, is to turn the whole Miliband project on its head. I want not to start out with a string of things that we think would be good in government (worthy as they might have been) but to start by impressing on the public what we are and what we are here for.

Time and time again during Labour’s catastrophic decline in Scotland we have been told we must be more like the SNP (albeit usually by our enemies). I think, in one respect, we should take that advice.

The lesson which we should learn is that we need to win hearts and minds – and crucially in that order. If we look at how they have succeeded it has precisely in that way. As part of the Yes campaign, they expected to lose but wished to make headway, and above all saw the opportunity to win hearts with an emotional (in many senses irrational) appeal to the electorate. This is now being followed up with attempts to add minds, explicitly through a more rational economic policy as set out in the General Election campaign.

Labour should do the same, and to win hearts by concentrating on our vision, and the key components of our strategy. The first milestone in the progress Labour’s strategy for recovery must be to get home that message of our purpose. A suggested timescale might be two years (the Fixed Term Parliament Act helps here.) Phase 2 should hammer home the core values (a further two years); and Operational Programmes is the manifesto development process for the 2020 General Election. And if – as seems likely – we do not turn over the Tories then, we have our identity and values secured in the public mind and a tool kit for 2025 manifesto.

If there is any advantage of the depth and breadth of our defeat, it is that we have nothing to lose. We do not need to fear the loss of a few hundred votes here and there, if we need millions to govern again.

We must use that space to become a new party, based on our enduring qualities.

We achieve more together than we do alone. Liberty. Equality. Solidarity. If we can win the hearts of voters with these noble and historic ideals, their minds will follow when we ask them to work with us to make them real.

And if we cannot, the game really is up for Labour. And it will be our failure, not that of the voters.

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