Why the old ways won’t work for Labour
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.