Expectations management is an important part of the media-handling of elections. However, I refuse to have my expectations of Labour success managed by our leadership. Our election results were not good enough to put us on target for a Labour government in 2020, therefore they are not good enough full stop. And to those suggesting that people like me should ‘put up or shut up’, I ‘put up’ and won in 1997, 2001 and 2005. When you’ve won a general election, you’ll be in a stronger position to ask lifelong party members to shut up. Until then …
Whether or not a leader wants it to be, any set of elections is a test of their leadership and a signal of the progress they are making towards becoming prime minister. It is also a test of the strategy and messaging deployed in the campaign and the job is made easier or harder by the unity of purpose showed by the party.
From the statements of our leaders and the election literature, it seemed clear that our message and election strategy was to use an anti-austerity message and the campaigning power of our new members to mobilise non-voters. In the poster launch last week, we appealed to voters to choose which ‘side’ they were on and to vote accordingly
So let’s start with the good news. In the heart of the country, the excellent Redditch Labour party retained control of Redditch borough council and the Tories lost control in Worcester. These are both constituencies vital for forming a Labour government. On these figures, they still would not have returned a Labour member of parliament.
Hard-working Redditch councillors kept their seats because the local party campaigns its socks off and the council has implemented popular and radical, but sensible, policies with Labour leadership. In addition, the major message of the campaign was about protecting the local Redditch hospital which faces an extremely uncertain future. Given a threat to the local hospital, the Tory budget fiasco, Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation and academy policy in shreds, the question is why we feared that the council could be lost to the Tories at all.
It is because neither the strategy nor the national messaging are right.
That poster brought it home to me. On the doorstep during this campaign the message I most often heard was that voters had not made up their mind. Many of us who do the campaigning are Labour to the core – we cannot imagine voting anything other than Labour whatever we feel about any given leader or set of policies. We need to remember we’re not normal – we’re a bit weird. Most people don’t view their politics (any more, even if they ever did) as about ‘taking sides’ or sending a message to the prime minister. The day of the core vote is over. In a less certain and less deferential age, people take a more ‘consumerist’ approach to choosing who they vote for. This is not to say that values are not important – or that people only vote selfishly – but people will look critically at what is on offer from the parties and, furthermore, they will make a judgement about how likely the parties are to be able to deliver it.
Nor am I convinced by the anti-austerity message. Wasn’t that supposed to be the clincher for Scotland?
In addition, we haven’t yet delivered on the promise to enthuse non-voters to get out and vote Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has certainly excited some Labour supporters and new members of our party, but this has not translated to higher turnout. In fact, one of the more sickening elements of this election campaign were the celebrities who were perfectly happy to declare their support for Jeremy, to laud the way he was changing politics, but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for his party. Yes I’m talking about you Charlotte Church, Emma Thompson et al.
It won’t be getting non-voters out which will win parliamentary seats in Redditch and Worcester. It will be by getting people who voted Tory or the United Kingdom Independence party this time to change their vote by 2020. I am not sure tarring them as being on the ‘other side’ is a good way to persuade them.
Having decided on your key messages, you then need a ruthless discipline in pursuing them. Our national campaign was too easily thrown off course. Nobody in Redditch raised the issue of antisemitism with me. However, one former Labour voter told me he thought we were a ‘bit of a shambles’ – that was over the weekend Ken Livingstone spent prancing around radio studios talking about Hitler. Instead of downplaying the serious issue of antisemitism, our leadership needed to tackle it earlier. Jeremy bemoaned the fact that ‘the media are obsessed with my leadership’. I understand his frustration, but I am afraid the media become obsessed with leadership when you are not showing enough of it.
I can wholly understand why our current leadership are putting a brave face on a mediocre set of results. I have done that enough times myself. However, behind closed doors, they must be honest with themselves about the scale of the challenge to win in 2020. More of the same won’t do. What’s going to change?
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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