In place of fear

We need a message of hope backed up by credible policies

With the European and local elections out of the way, we are on the runway to the general election. If you look around the zombie parliament over the next few months and wonder where everybody is, they are knocking on doors, campaigning outside Asda, or doing phone-ins on North Norfolk Digital. The legislative process has ended. The election process has begun.

What kind of election will it be? The close kind. The kind where no one knows who won, even after the exit poll. The kind where 100,000 voters will decide the future for 60 million people. The kind of election where every tiny move back and forth across the terrain of battle may prove decisive to ultimate victory. This is our Waterloo, where the actions of a few hundred Coldstream Guards at the Hougoumont farmhouse can settle the future of Europe.

How the residents of Brighton, Thurrock, Cardiff and Lincoln vote on 7 May 2015 will decide whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband becomes prime minister, and what kind of country we become. The American strategist most likely to be quoted is not David Axelrod, but The West Wing’s Bruno Gianelli explaining to Jed Bartlett why you should scrape the kelp off the hull of a sailboat to pick up half a mile of speed. Every little thing matters.

Each party’s strategy is clear. The Tories began theirs in June 2010, and have been repeating it ever since: Labour screwed up the economy, we are clearing up the mess. The Liberal Democrats want you to believe they stopped the Tories slaying your first-born, and were solely responsible for anything nice that has happened to you over the past five years. Labour will stick to the ‘cost-of-living crisis’: you are worse off than five years ago because the Tories have choked off the recovery, while rewarding the wrong people.

The question that hangs tantalisingly over the campaign is the degree to which Labour can generate a sense of hope in the future. This is vital to success. The temptation will be to fall back onto the ‘Tories are toffs’ riff. We saw it in the Nick-Clegg-chased-by-a-cat party election broadcast. The campaigns around the ‘bedroom tax’, ‘NHS privatisation’ or ‘foodbank Britain’ have been about fear. They appeal to the anxieties and prejudices of Labour’s 29 per cent, but not much beyond the base.

The digital electorate is so sophisticated that it can smell the desperation of an attack ad a mile off. The Tories and the Daily Mail are going to run a down-and-dirty run of attacks on Miliband and the shadow cabinet. They will be accused of everything from economic incompetence to Satanism. Like the ‘demon eyes’ attacks on Tony Blair, the Tories’ ads will not work if people feel a sense of hope and a yearning for change. But Labour’s attack ads on the Tories being out-of-touch toffs will not work either if people feel their living standards creeping upwards. If you deliver a growing economy, the voters do not care what school you went to.

Philip Gould, Labour’s much-missed election strategist, wrote that ‘campaigning is about beating fear.’ His Unfinished Revolution makes the point that the right campaigns on fear, the left on hope, and usually the right wins. Let us not forget that Gordon Brown’s manifesto had a picture of a family looking forward into a bright dawn. Michael Foot’s manifesto was entitled New Hope for Britain. Both had all the appeal to the voters of athlete’s foot.

Gould’s argument was that ‘progressive parties have learned to defeat fear through rebuttal, counter-attack, more aggressive, less passive campaigning, with an emphasis on message which connects directly with the insecurities of working families … but in a fast-changing world, insecurity is likely to grow, and with it the potential for fear-based campaigning. Progressive parties will have to fight harder to combat it.’

David Axelrod may prove decisive here. This is a man who was distributing campaign badges for Robert F Kennedy at the age of 13. Axelrod’s whole campaigning ethos is anchored in the ‘hopey, changey’ thing. His work with Barack Obama shows hope can trump fear, and the progressive base can be expanded by touching the lives of new groups of voters. His foil in this election, Lynton Crosby, shows the polar opposite. Crosby’s life’s work is a catalogue of appeals to base instincts and dark fears. Axelrod appeals to the better angels of our nature; Crosby is the devil on our shoulder.

For progressives to win with a message of hope requires substantive policies. The lesson from elections where hope has beaten fear – Clement Attlee in 1945, John F Kennedy in 1960, Blair in 1997, Obama in 2008 – is that you need policies which sound attractive, credible and workable. Each Miliband policy position – the freeze on heating bills, for example – has been about highlighting a coalition failure, and garnering a short-term advantage for Labour. Labour’s problem is that it does not amount to a whole hill of beans. With the election breathing down our necks, the absence of policy remains Labour’s greatest weakness.

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