How to revive Labour: values, not Tory-bashing

This week’s Spectator has some interesting articles on the future of the Labour party, including one from Martin Bright arguing that Labour now needs to skip a generation – “if [Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham a and James Purnell] genuinely have the interests of their party at heart, they will drift gracefully into middle age…” – and an open letter from Daniel Finkelstein to Peter Mandelson on how to revive the Labour party.

Finkelstein’s article deserves reading in its entirety, but two points in particular leapt out at me;

1. Attacking the Tories can be counterproductive

Finkelstein argues that Labour attempts to discredit the Tories are making matters worse for Labour than for the Tories:

When people watch Labour politicians talking about Tories, they are making judgments about Labour, not about the Tories. They are asking themselves – does this person seem pleasant? Is he interested in the things I am interested in? Has he got things in proportion? Does he care about the country or just his political point?

Your dividing lines and attempt to define David Cameron as a right-wing toff make you look as if you have things out of proportion, only care about politics and may not be nice. In other words, you are squandering what has often been a Labour advantage – that you care, that you are likeable.

This problem is likely to get worse as the election approaches and Labour politicians become more desperate – just as it was looming annihilation that led the Tories to their disastrous “Demon Eyes” campaign before the 1997 election, only succeeding in adding to their image as “the nasty party”.

2. You need to make voting Labour feel good

Finkelstein argues that people voted for Margaret Thatcher because “she made them feel they were doing good for the country” by “helping hard-working people and curing the British disease”. Similarly, “people felt great about voting for Tony Blair in 1997”. He continues:

So you need to talk more about Labour’s values, about the sort of country you are trying to create. Make people feel great about being on your side. Make them feel it’s something that good, caring people do. If you just tell them that you will protect them from the evil Tories, you will get nowhere.

Sadly, a visit to Labour’s website is enough to demonstrate that Finkelstein’s advice is falling on deaf ears. From the home page, there are at least four attacks on the Conservatives only a click away. But I had to do a Google site search in order to find Clause IV – the main statement of Labour’s values, as adopted in 1995:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.

This remains an attractive statement of intent (if not a particularly attractive piece of prose!), so why isn’t this pushed further to the fore in Labour’s presentation of itself? They could even find a way to skip the “democratic socialist” bit if they felt that was going to frighten the horses.

Similarly the statement of “Labour’s purpose”:

Labour’s purpose is fairness: fair rules, fair chances and a fair say for everyone.

If Labour wants to go down fighting with honour, in a way that gives it a ghost of a chance of recovering quickly, then that is the sort of message it should be promoting: not the “David Cameron will eat your babies” stuff which is likely to be served up instead.

Though, as Daniel Finkelstein points out, all this is futile without a change of leader. This is going to be a “time for a change” election, and Labour can’t claim to represent change with Gordon Brown still in office. Which takes us back to Polly Toynbee’s column as mentioned in my previous post.


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