As Labour found out in 2015, retail politics aimed at attempting to buy the electorate’s regard is no replacement for a popular leader and a consistent narrative, writes Jerome Neil
It was October last year and Ed Miliband, who by then had completed his conversion from leader of the opposition to Twitter darling, was responding to Laura Kuenssberg reporting that Theresa May intended to ‘hint’ at introducing price controls on energy companies in an upcoming speech: ‘Marxist, anti-business interventionism imho.’ Seven months on, Kuenssberg has been proved correct and Miliband’s caustic tweets about May’s appropriation of Labour policies have almost become a part of daily life.
As has been noted ad nauseum on social media, unlike Miliband, May has not endured a barracking from the broadsheets for announcing a price freeze. There is no doubt that the press are no great friend of government intervention – or the Labour party, for that matter – but the disparity in coverage goes deeper than an ‘MSM’ conspiracy to lock Labour out of government. After all, the party has never needed any help to do that. In fact, the cries of hypocrisy, corruption and bias from Labour supporters in response to it say a great deal about the party’s failure to learn the lessons of the last election.
Between 2010 and 2015, Miliband announced a whole range of policies designed to convince a sceptical electorate that Labour was on their side – ‘on your side in tough times’ was even the party’s slogan for the 2012 local elections. The price freeze was popular with the voters and set Miliband on a collision course with the energy companies. On paper it was a battle that Labour could – and should – win. And for a brief moment it seemed to have worked. The mansion tax and abolishing nom-dom status, both policies that were popular in a vacuum, followed. But when it counted on 9 May 2015, the British public opted for David Cameron, offering five more years of austerity and pain.
There were voices then that warned popular policies alone could not win a general election. That a retail politics aimed at attempting to buy the electorate’s regard was no replacement for a popular leader and a consistent narrative. Miliband’s popularity lagged far behind the party’s throughout his leadership and his reputation preceded every policy announcement. The electorate suspected that relatively modest interventions in the market would become more if ‘Red Ed’ were in Downing Street. It was the thin end of the wedge – first a price freeze, later the forced collectivisation of land.
May does not have that problem. In fact, since taking office she has seemed determined to confound the electorate’s expectations of what a Conservative prime minister should say and do. Pledging to place worker’s on boards, introducing ‘T-levels’ and promising to tackle Britain’s ‘burning injustices’ speaks to this. This approach – earnest or not – is already reaping dividends for the Conservatives, as Siôn Simon and Sue Jeffrey can attest to. Lifelong Labour voters, many of whom turned their noses up at the idea of Cameron’s government representing ‘working people’, are now flocking to May’s Conservative party.
In 2014, Labour published a video branding Nick Clegg the ‘un-credible shrinking man’ – in 2017, it is Labour’s electoral coalition that seems to be shrinking. Had Miliband taken a similar course to May and sought to confound the electorate’s expectations, challenging what they thought of him and the Labour party, things may have been very different.
With an election less than a month away and a leaked version of Labour’s manifesto doing the rounds, it bears thinking about whether its offering confounds, not reaffirms, the electorate’s opinion of it.
As Labour learned – or failed to learn, in some cases – perception matters.
Jerome Neil is events officer and editorial assistant at Progress. He tweets at @JeromeNeil
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