Why the old ways won’t work for Labour

January 22, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics 

I will return later today to cultural theory, thinking a bit more about how it can provide a practical tool to managers and policy makers. But first something a bit more mainstream. 

After a conversation about more substantive and RSA related topics, a Labour minister asked me this week: ‘what do you think of the political situation’. This is what I said.

The underlying realities are reasserting themselves. Labour has been in office for eleven years, the economy is a disaster area and the Conservatives have been pretty successful at detoxifying their brand. All this suggests a reasonably comfortable Conservative victory at the next election with Labour’s best hope being that the vagaries of the electoral system mean this doesn’t quite turn into an overall majority. While we have over the last twenty years got used to the idea that when a party regains power it keeps it for three terms, we may return to the politics of the sixties and seventies when the major parties took it in turns to fail to address the UK’s long term decline.

The Conservatives are not very coherent on the economy. Their rhetoric distances them from most economic experts and the strategies of most other countries (including Obama’s USA), but their policies differ from Labour only at the margins of the huge sums now being thrown at the crisis. But the public naturally wants someone to blame for what is happening and the successful, and perfectly legitimate, Conservative strategy is to reinforce this tendency by continually attacking the Government, even when the Opposition doesn’t have an alternative policy (as George Osborne did about ‘Bailout 2’ on Monday).

In this context the conventional politics of claim and counter claim, attack and rebuttal, won’t work for Labour. The team that helped win for Labour between 1997 and 2005 is back inside the tent but, like generals, ageing political strategists are always inclined to fight the last battle.

Instead, Labour needs a radically different communication strategy. This might for example involve an explicit refusal to engage in party politics while the economic storm is raging. Brown’s message might be: ‘I am reconciled to the likelihood of losing the next election. Neither I nor my ministers are going to waste any energy on that skirmish when the big battle is to get through this crisis’.

Along with such a strategy the Government might push to the forefront some of its more emotionally intelligent communicators; people like James Purnell, Andy Burnham and the always effective Alan Johnson.

But instead of this an insider told me the other day: ‘we are basically on election footing now and will be for the next fifteen months’. And at the Fabian conference at the weekend there was even a strange tone of triumphalism about the crisis of global finance.

If Labour tries to win on the conventional terrain of party political battling it is likely to lose badly. To reframe politics in the way necessary means boldness of strategy, directness of communication and a willingness to move beyond the tried and tested weapons of past wars. Given this, I don’t suppose Mr Cameron has too much to worry about.



  • http://bacatu.blogspot.com Matthew Cain

    I don’t envisage a day I won’t be a Labour party member. But watching the current lot is like your uncle on the dancefloor. There’s so little evidence that they understand the way the world’s changed.

    And the party machine has been so hollowed-out in the last 10 years that it seems to lack the capacity to push the government in the right direction.

  • Indy

    I wonder Matthew if you have a different perspective on some of the characters involved.

    I only see Burnham and Purnell on TV, hear them on the radio, read what they say in the papers. I would rate them as fairly effective communicators, but “emotionally intelligent” would not be on my list of their strengths.

  • Dirty Euro

    But surely labour tried that before and that is why they went 25 points behind. Because the PM tried to above the fray and ended up looking out of touch.
    Politics is about fast rebuttal and engaging in the debate. It is about who has the best and quickest political operators. If labour just gives up on that they will get slaughtered.

    I think labour just has to fight hard, maybe at worst this is like a football team that are 2-1 down, with a 10 minutes to go and an aging team. If they just give in they will get torn apart.
    They have to carry on fighting to the end, going through the motions, even if they sense defeat or else they will be destroyed, torn apart and humiliated.
    It may be hard work to fight when you know you will lose but it is better than total destruction which I think what would happen if they just gave in.
    I have been upset by labout on Heathrow though big business should not be put before people’s homes.
    I don’t see Purnell and Burnham as emotionally intelligent, I am not saying that is a bad thing.

    • matthewtaylor

      Fair enough. I guess we agree that the usual tactics are unlikely to succeed. But you think there is no alternative. Maybe this is right . Another of putting my arguement is that Labour’s only hope is that there is some good news starting to emerge by spring 2010 and that they can claim some credit for it. But until then Laboutris bound to lose every argument (not because they are wrong but becuase they have been around a long time and people are understandlably pissed off). So the question is ‘how does Labour avoid people closing their minds in 2009 so that they can make a fresh appeal to them in 2010?’ This is why a unilateral political cease fire might be the best option.

      But, one thing I do know is that poltical stratgey develops best when bright people close to the action give themsleves the time to explore many options from every angle inforemd by good data. That’s what I used to do. But now I am no mroe than a fading fireside commentator so I am more than willing to recognise that my idea could have one or more fatal laws

      Thanks for reading


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  • Somerset

    I don’t think rolling over and playing dead is the way to beat us – but if you can persuade labour to give it a go then please carry on.The gorilla in the corner is your leader.When he comes on the television now my wife and I either mute it or switch channels.I suspect we are not alone in this.I would suggest that Peter should be asked to persuade Gordon to do the decent thing and resign for the benefit of the country and a once great party.If he is allowed to remain in post till 2010 it will be a bloodbath.I don’t care about that but I do care about the damage he will have done by then.I would certainly get him to stop invoking the name of Obama because it invites v.unfavourable comparisons and I don’t think that Obama likes being associated with a political corpse much either.

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  • Mrs.Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    It’s about leadership, if anyone should be so bold as to ask me. People will follow a good leader who has leading ideas. Politics needs to get away from this “left” or “right” business which is fast becoming akin to some interminable illness, it seems to me. This is not to say the principles which drive one’s positioning to “the left” or “right” are inherently unhealthy – but in practice not many of us care about these things anymore, especially when everything’s happening in the margins anyway eg globalization. These are also reasons why we could do with better designed Houses of Parliament -the numbers of M.P’s left sitting in the aisles and in the doorhole on a busy day is quite ridiculous.

    • matthewtaylor


      Thanks for this. I agree about the Commons. In fact I dislike the whole Pariament bulding (aprt from the Great Hall which, of cours, pedates the Pugin building). It is a pompous, old fashioned, over-bearing place.

      Thanks for commenting

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