How Can New labour Recover: Losing To An Old Etonian

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Earlier in the year, in response to my view that New Labour was sleep walking to election defeat, a former cabinet heavyweight pitched it as sitting on the edge of the bed. Now, it seems more like a full-blown lemming charge. Amongst the new Labour oligarchy, the determination to achieve defeat is impressive. Such a determination is frequently seen in successful organisations (and New Labour is a very successful organisation) when the external conditions, which have been the foundation for that success, change. Internally, the momentum of what is rewarded and valued, of what achieves promotion, of what delivers success is very strong. People keep doing what has won elections and made for good government in the past.

But the political marketplace has been benign, with no serious competition for nearly 10 years. Inevitably, this has bred complacency and some arrogance. A serious competitor is now in the market, and, for all of its achievements, New Labour is an L-shaped government (see below). Now that a credible alternative has become available, the electorate has expressed its frustration with the New Labour project and its monopoly supplier, and breathed in the refreshing politics of the New Conservatives. History does repeat itself. As an aid to the inhalation, the hoped-for break with the past became more of the same, and the new leader obliged with some crass tactics and prevarication as an apparent policy objective. Short of the equivalent of a Falklands War (and the banking crisis may prove to be just that if the government plays a blinder), can New Labour recover and, at least, be competitive at the next election? My answer is yes, but only if the big nettles are grasped and significant changes made quickly.

Stop hiding

The New Labour oligarchy uses a variety of  rationalisations to avoid facing up to big change. “The campaign for the Fourth Term” is always to hand, but with all the bounce of a punctured ball for the party members being called to arms. “The electoral system will rescue us”:  meaning it is not possible for sufficient seats to change at one go. Why? “Our record is outstanding and will be rewarded”. The record in the first six years was outstanding.  From unemployment to crime to road deaths to devolution to rough sleeping to reading and primary schools. Since then performance improvement has been limited. Hence, L-shaped government. The taxpayer has paid the government handsomely for its record and, like any sensible investor is now assessing its likely future performance. Flat. And well worth a punt on the other lot.

“ We are in the middle of a prolonged period of social democratic hegemony”. David Cameron has spotted that too and is offering a more liberal society than New Labour, and one that, hopefully, does not include sniffer dogs and body searches of gentle passengers for Glastonbury Festival at Paddington station.

 “Cameron has no policies”. Well, he does have a resonant over arching approach. The policies are being developed, and already amount to far more than the five pledges with which Labour came to power in 1997. Like so many ageing governments before it, this one has fewer and fewer working policies. Where are they for road congestion, welfare-based lifestyles, rail travel, crime (other than building large prisons) and secondary education, for example?

 And finally, “this would not be happening with a different leader, or if Tony Blair were still PM”. Well, it would and it did. Tony Blair had become terminal with the electorate and Gordon Brown was the hope for something different from the old New Labour refrain.

Connect with our emotions and get a new mind-reader

Philip Gould, when he arrived fresh from the US election of Clinton in 1992, brought a sophistication to polling and reading of polling new to the UK. And he reigned for 10 years as Tony Blair’s public mind reader. Then along came Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s equivalent, who has overtaken Philip in his ability to read the public mind, not least because he is connecting with the emotional place of the public. Steve is no average PR guru as I found when he worked with me on marketing Relate. He reads the public’s emotions not their polling responses. “He doesn’t realise we have feelings” said a classic moderate middle Englander from near Carlisle of Gordon Brown. And neither does NL. NL just ploughs on. Hilton understands how we are feeling and Cameron acts accordingly. His tone is even and non-adversarial. He sees a world as we do: complex, with few easy answers, and many imponderables; not a place where traditional adversarial politics (even if we were not bored stiff with these) would work in terms of coming up with and implementing the right answers ( should they exist). GB continues to act like the big beast at question time. It falls flat. He doesn’t know it. And some others on the front bench do not look as though they do either. This is not the way, any more, to get the right decisions and actions in so many areas of life.  The bottom line is that Cameron and co are serious, always have been, have a far better grasp of what is needed and where people are, and could do a better job in government than NL.

Think outside the New Labour box

At a private Demos seminar on immigration, I said that although clearly immigration is an issue, the bigger issue was population. Which is very obviously an issue all around us. Where are those 3million new houses going? How sustainable? The attendant minister dismissed the point by referring to the leader of Newcastle city council who, apparently, wants significant population growth there. The minister is not a lifelong politician and has significant experience outside and is relatively young. But, he can’t think outside the New Labour box. A current cabinet minister put it well in that “New Labour knows what is best for you”. Well, actually, it doesn’t and, indeed, we are fed up with that sort of stuck thinking and approach. Has the Leader of Newcastle actually asked the citizens there what they think about a massive population rise? Or does NL know what is best for them?  We will all get to better decisions, and decisions which stick, if we engage people in a much more open process. We are fed up with things being done to us, particularly when they don’t work. And, by the way, public engagement does not equal citizens’ summits, as a current discussion paper on the governance of Britain says. 

Go to bed

Tired ministers do not have the energy for fresh thinking. Too many red boxes late at night, too many appointments, too many hours working, too much travel. If NL is to have a chance then it needs to be well-rested. Clear the brain and get some modern thinking going on a very few key issues or policies.

Stop all unpopular policies

I cannot remember when NL last did something popular. NL in government has gone the way of most governments and become prey to sectional interests. The weaker a government feels, the more it is reluctant to battle professional or institutional interests, the less it hears or responds to the public’s interests, and the more unpopular and weak it becomes. The Family Courts are one example of an overwhelming need for reform. The first step has been on the table for years (anonymous reporting),  but nothing happens because the judges believe they own the family law set-up. They don’t. The public does. But ministers won’t take even the first populist step. So the public has less faith in the government.

At the margin, each decision for new controls over the individual could be justified. And then, we woke up one day to find ourselves smothered in state controls. And we are thoroughly fed up with them. Taken together, they are too much, too restricting, and at times cause much aggravation for the individual. Vetting, speed cameras, every possible road and car rule, banning electrical DIY, registration for electricians, a rampant Health and Safety Executive (our modern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition), identity cards, smoking bans, etc. On top of this is the way these measures are implemented. Outside a major station under the open and covered concourse, there are aggressive notices threatening smokers with all sorts of dire consequences. It is windy here. There is no danger of passive smoking. The ban in restaurants on balance works for all. Why go draconian, and ban smoking in the open? To create aggression? To make some (all with votes) feel pariahs? And for some poorer people, smoking is one of their few or only pleasures. But NL knows what is best for you. “All government is, of course, against liberty” H.L.Melkin.

A revealing debate in Progress magazine concluded that the choice in taxation was between investment by Labour and cuts by the Conservatives. But the public is not that simple in its assessment. Broadly, they can see where their money goes. And they take a view as to whether putting more of it there is worthwhile. The public sector has improved, particularly where the issue was one of under-funding ( e.g. health, teachers pay). But, much of it is, still, gratuitously inefficient.  The electorate experience the public services and conclude it would be largely a waste of money to give them more. Sheltering behind the investment banner does nothing. The public sector has to earn its living like the rest of us.

Why are post offices, which are very much in demand, being closed? And why has letter pricing has become so complicated? The Post Office business appears to have a death wish.

Immigration perhaps sums it all up. Whether we like it or not, every new immigrant, regardless of category, results in a vote for Cameron. NL has no strategy, no coherent policy, has made some major blunders, not thought through the unintended consequences (English identity, screwing the socially excluded, congestion, paying for new infrastructure), nor struck a fair balance between the indigenous and the immigrant. Well done.

Avoid the ‘why-bothers’

There are a number of decisions that the government does not need to take. It needs a quiet life and to avoid unnecessary political conflict. The 42/28 day debate is a classic issue to be avoided, apparently borne of a desire to be seen as tough on terrorism. And it is totally crap politics. 10p tax abolition seems to fit into this category too. Denying the police back pay. A civil service act. Cannabis reclassification. This seemed to be an attempt to gel with middle England. I am not sure anyone there is looking. But the main impact of the reclassification was to stretch too far the commitment of a core Labour constituency. I wondered how on earth the polls had recorded Labour below the 30% mark that used always to be the absolute zero of support for Tories/Lab: life-long rock-solid and immovable. The way you do it is to try their patience sufficiently often with measures they oppose. They then see no alternative but to vote for the opposition.

Do something popular

Pick a few populist measures that are easy to implement. A truce on public service reform? A 24 point rule for speeding? Review the cost-benefit of the Health and Safety Executive? Adopt US standards for clearing the roads after crashes? Actually cut the bureaucratic impact on us all?   End post office closures? Get hold of rogue traders? Easy information for the consumer about energy use?  Etc. Etc. Etc.

Keep or change the leader?

I have left this to last because too many consider changing the leader as the solution to losing to an Old Etonian. But no leader will compete without the changes above. And history says that Labour will not change its leader before the election. As I found in my organisational review of the Labour Party for John Smith (the recommendations of which became a building block of New Labour), the party is in the donkey class for changing leaders. The Conservatives are world class. Even Mrs Thatcher was ditched when she became an electoral liability. Labour persisted with Neil Kinnock who lost to “who’d have believed it” John Major. Surely John Smith would have won. Tony Blair should have been ushered out on a stadium of garlands before the 2005 election. He stayed and even secured a nine-month office freebee. The cause may be Labour being the party of compassion; or insufficient guts. Either way, the one absolute and clear role of the Parliamentary Labour Party is to change the leader. This is termed governance, and it fails this role every time. Like the banks.

 If All Else Fails…..Do A Mitterand

If you have read this far, you may feel I have represented the government’s achievements insufficiently and been unduly harsh. But my hope is that this commentary will shock Labour into action. If it does not, then President Mitterand’s tactic to stave off complete defeat before the 1986 French election of introducing proportional representation, will be the only option.

 Ed Straw

May 2008


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