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Dear Ed,

May 8, 2011

Let us start with an admission. The Conservatives did incredibly well on Thursday. The message of their economic incompetence, the bite of their cuts, their apparent sexism and xenophobia – all those things were not enough to overturn their brilliant strategy. Cameron played Labour and the LibDems against each other, and won. If Labour ignore this, if they attempt to sugar the pill, it will be at their peril.

More than that, like a good snooker player, Cameron has set up his next shot beautifully. The lack of Coalition presence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as northern Labour heartlands, will allow them to play increasingly at their favourite game: Choke funds off at National level from Westminster, then claim that regional leadership is responsible for particular choices of front-line cuts – the “nothing to do with us” strategy.

I am concerned about the message Labour seem to be taking from all this. Influential commentators seem to be suggesting that these results will allow Labour to “position the party” in a way that can bring victory in a general election. The idea of “positioning a party” is a dangerous one. It involves the distasteful assumption that the voting public are at best unperceptive and at worst stupid.

Naturally, I accept there are complex factors at play. But I believe the basic reason the Tories did well in the South is that they are unashamedly Tory. They are a party of plutocracy and privilege, committed to helping those living the Thatcherite dream in leafy home counties. The reason the SNP did well in Scotland is similarly the focus and clarity of their message – even though their platform these days is distinctly to the left. They know what they stand for and state it clearly.

It is facile to believe that Blair brought victory to Labour in the nineties merely because he managed to reposition the party more centrally. Such a jejune interpretation ignores a key concept. Blair repositioned the party more centrally because that was where he genuinely stood. His strategy flowed from his more centralist world-view, not the other way around.

In any case, to try and duplicate the “Blair manoeuvre” is misconceived in two basic ways.

First, it ignores a most significant event – the spectacular collapse of unregulated, free-market dogma and the exposure of the idea that an economy can rely exclusively on financial markets for (bogus) growth, as a myth.

Second, it misjudges the extent of public antipathy towards modern-style politicians, dominated by spin and focus-group.

Adjusting one’s ideological basis on the hoof to fit the desired “positioning” or, even worse lacking an ideological basis altogether, is unpalatable to the vast majority of voters.  It is the principal reason for the LibDems’ punishment at the polls. The Labour party must not go down that dark alley.

Cameron reveals his mind frequently. I feel I know him better than other politicians. I know what makes him tick and I know what he stands for. And perhaps the average “undecided” voter finds him as offensive in every way as I do. Is this enough of itself, to make someone vote for the completely unknown quantity that is Ed Miliband? I say it is not.

It seems to me that for the last few months the proverbial cart has been put very much before the horse. There is a shocking lack of discussion of what it is we believe, which is the right direction for the country, what is the right thing to do. There is instead a fanatical focus on presentation. As a result, rhetoric appears disconnected, passionless and devoid of substance. The voting public know this instinctively. They will never vote in large numbers for someone presented immaculately, but standing on quicksand.

The Labour party needs to differentiate itself, truly do so, from others. This is not a matter of trying to second-guess people’s reaction to shifting this policy a little to the right and that policy a little to the left. The most revolutionary thing a political party can do in 2011 is to stop talking at voters as if they are idiots and start talking to voters like adults; to speak earnestly, underpinned by principles and passion; for a leader to say: these are the things that matter to me and, if they matter to you too, this is my plan for making them happen and keeping them safe.

In short, Ed, you need to stop defining Labour with reference to the Conservatives –  the inescapable implication of trying to “position the party”. There are qualities to Socialism which are superbly attractive to people, especially at a time of crisis. It speaks in terms of hope and fairness while others deal in fear and selfishness. How about anchoring the party in what we think is right and let others “position” and “spin” around us?

Incompetence, immorality and dishonesty are not exposed effectively by shouting across the floor of the Commons “he is rubbish, he is a crook, he is a liar”. They are only truly brought into sharp focus by being set against a leader behaving with competence, morality and  honesty. This is the only way to be a true alternative to the ConDem government.

You never know. The voting public may be ready for that. I know I am.

Sincerely Yours

Alex

10 Comments leave one →
  1. rogerglewis permalink
    May 8, 2011 4:45 pm

    I think personally that most of the above analysis misses the point Labour has to be handed back to the Grass roots and the corporate agenda and tactics of spin abandoned. New Labour New Tories New Lib Dem they are as we see in America all lobbyist fodder now.
    Local Labour Parties should re select all member and perspective candidates and establish their own media outlet free of contributions or any patronage on the Internet. Give the ideas and policies back to the membership for the people.
    The concept of , “If you cant beat them join them” has not worked the wholesale adoption of the Precautionary Principle over rational discussion has divorced our Government from the people. What the Labour Party Has to do is divorce itself from the game of Spin and PR and try some good old fashioned truth and real democracy.
    People will soon catch on, acquiescing in the continued Hijack of government by the Corporate State what Mrs Thatcher ( Then) used to Call GB Limited is a busted Flush.
    There is a need for real Radicalism to find the real solutions to our Political Economy.
    I think a Walk out or some sort of disruption of the Business of the House of commons should be devised to demonstrate the lack of validity to what we call our Government.
    More smoked filled rooms and beer a sandwiches less of the Latte and Croissant’s more substance and less packaging this whole Brand leveraging nonsense has to stop.

  2. May 8, 2011 7:25 pm

    Spot on. Ed Miliband’s performance on Marr this morning was a classic of the genre. He came across well in terms of style but he gave absolutely no indication of what Labour really stood for or were going to do in govt, if given the chance. There are a few – easy to spot – focus grouped phrases that kept being trotted out. Otherwise it was the familiar but slightly deranged competition with the interviewer to dodge as many questions as possible and avoid saying anything at all of substance – so it can’t be held against you in future.

  3. May 8, 2011 7:30 pm

    One reason why Ed Miliband is in a bad position is because he has a “blank sheet of paper” (ie policies are not yet formulated), we can argue whether it was a wise thing to do, but that is the position Labour is in.

    The solution is quite simple, and implied in your post. “what is the right thing to do”. Labour should take this opportunity to define its values (I would say a commitment to public services, is a good start) and then say that all policies will be framed in the context of those values.

    Policies do take time to formulate, and Labour is in danger of a snap election that they cannot afford to fight, with no policies to fight with. Stating their values, and pointing out “what is the right thing to do” would fill that policy void.

  4. paulk permalink
    May 8, 2011 9:41 pm

    Good piece, though I do think you’re being a little harsh on Ed.

    We need to be realistic about the timeframe. He’s been in charge for eight months, the election was only a year ago. The public still blame Labour for the deficit, and most are prepared to give the Tory economic plan a chance to succeed. I severely doubt it will, but until then they don’t want to hear Labour complaining too loudly about it. In fact they don’t want to hear much of them at all.

    Ed will be lucky at the moment to get four moments a year in the spotlight, when the media give him a fair hearing. I think he should use the conference speech to do exactly as you suggest – spell out the direction of travel, what he and the party stands for.

    There’s nothing wrong with positioning, so long as you believe in the position! Labour needs to set out clearer who they represent. Because of Brown’s inability to do this, millions of people voted Tory, unaware that it might make the difference to their tax credits, EMA, Sure Start etc. Likewise, they must spell out who ‘free schools’ are designed to benefit, and who they hurt.

    I’m optimistic that, unlike so many of his former cabinet colleagues, Ed does understand where the party went wrong. The ‘Blue Labour’ ideas are interesting and would have been unthinkable under Blair/Brown. Let’s see.

    As for the Tories and elections, all is to play for. I fear we are headed towards an irreversible political divide in our society, like the US. More and more districts voting 90% one way or the other in a 2-horse race.

    That isn’t a desirable outcome, but I think it will hurt the Tories as it hurt the Republicans. There just aren’t enough ‘winners’ under their preferred political economy. As it is, they haven’t bettered 37% in a GE for two decades.

    • May 8, 2011 11:49 pm

      The right start is important. Healthier to be harsh on Ed now, than call for his head in 4 years.

  5. rogerglewis permalink
    May 9, 2011 5:23 am

    Talking of positioning and being given a fair hearing in the Media and Blue Labour is precisely the problem we have to get away from the Peter Yorke Cult of the Brand the mandelsohnian pact that Blair made with Mrs Thatchers Icon GB Limited and Cool Britannia PLC. Always look to the Power behind the throne “Now I shall reveal my darker purpose”?
    All of this stuff is in Faust and Lear Wagner and Orwell classic literature and Art reflecting the change in paradigms Rise and fall of empire.
    Obama will be spending one Billion Dollars on his next pitch for the Whitehouse Franchise. Watch Primary Colours or Read it and see if it makes you feel uncomfortable about reducing Political Economy down to a scripted narrative story boarded fantasy,an entertainment for the Mob! What we have now is no more reflective of policy than if we asked people to vote based on the Leaders favourite Car or Favourite Breakfast cereal. I would have said colour but that would have excluded the Blind and the color blind and we wouldn’t want AN UNDEMOCRATIC SYSTEM WOULD WE.

    Take a look at this excellent Dutch performance art piece I’m not sure whether its an Allegory or a Metaphor but for me it speaks very much to the problem here in an Abstractionist way.

  6. James McLaren (Jersey, Channel Islands) permalink
    May 9, 2011 6:47 am

    Time is not on Ed Miliband’s side. AFAICS the LibDem wipeout and the SNP win in the Scottish elections means that Cameron could easily decide to cut his losses with the coalition and call a snap election. With Labour apparently standing for nothing at all, he would probably win an outright majority.

  7. nick james permalink
    May 9, 2011 10:35 am

    Good piece Alex.

    I’ve long thought that Labour needs to be bold, not timorous. In particular, it needs to elucidate its guiding principles and make it 100% clear that it wants everything it says and does to be measured by how well it conforms to those principles.

    In no particular order, those principles might include:

    “We believe that human beings are more important than money.”

    “We believe that a defining characteristic of a civilised society is how well it takes care of its vulnerable, be they children, the elderly, those afflicted with poor health, physical or mental, and the disadvantaged.”

    “We believe that human beings can achieve far more collectively than they can individually.”

    “We believe in government as the most efficient delivery system for services that benefit all our population.”

    “We believe that the cost of delivering services for all must be borne by individual contributions based on ability to pay.”

    That’s a short, by no means exclusive, list that may or may not have been very well articulated but it has to be better than the bland nothings currently on offer.

  8. Steve Finney permalink
    May 11, 2011 12:18 am

    I think that Labour are compromised to a certain extent by Brown’s bail-out of the banks. If they could at least come up with a policy to effectively make the banks pay a fair share of the mess they created, that would help to put some distance between them & the Tories. At the moment they stand almost on the same ground as the Thatchermen.
    I also think that they will get left behind if they are not careful because of the inevitable civil strife that will occur due to pressure from the financial markets for austerity measures. This will lead to industrial action etc & the Tories are already showing signs of their intention to crackdown on strikes & civil liberties. The signs are already there, pre-crime arrests etc.
    At the moment it seems to me & possibly other people that the 3 main parties are much of a muchness. Frustrated angry people will look for alternatives, way to the left or right. this is no longer a safe fat Blair/Brown world of spin, we need some guts.
    Great blog !!!

  9. May 19, 2011 11:18 pm

    One of the things that irritated me about Labour, in power, was that they were so reticent about good work accomplished if there were any chance it might make them appear at all’socialist’. I’m astounded, now that many of what I’d consider clear successes(Surestart, EMA, school sports partnerships, to give just a few examples in my field)are being callously dismantled to widespread public dismay, that they still appear equivocal. What will it take for them to abandon ‘positioning’ and take a position?

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