The future of the left since 1884

“Labour wins when it combines method with meaning”

At last Saturday’s Fabian summer conference, Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, argued: “Labour had nearly two million conversations between January and May this year. Imagine if all those conversations tweeted as #LabourDoorstep were about more than just voting intentions. If we had...


At last Saturday’s Fabian summer conference, Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, argued:

“Labour had nearly two million conversations between January and May this year. Imagine if all those conversations tweeted as #LabourDoorstep were about more than just voting intentions. If we had engaged properly with people’s hopes, listened to their fears.”

In three sentences, he demonstrated very clearly that he understands the challenges faced by Labour. He reclaimed the word ‘conversation’ from its misuse by Labour for the last three years. Conversations are willing and voluntary. They involve empathy and exchange. They do not proceed along a pre-determined and scripted course. It involves listening.

And if we listen closely we will hear one emotion very clearly – anger. The ‘none of the above’ party is in the ascendant. While polls are looking good for Labour currently with the Liberal Democrat bonus providing a foundation for the speedy resuscitation of the party post a dismal defeat, the environment is still volatile. Voters have seen what the Tories are about but that doesn’t mean that they are on the rebound and ready to fall into the arms of an old flame.

There are structural as well as circumstantial reasons for this. The glue of class bonds has been weakening for decades as the economy changed. People see themselves more as individuals rather than determined by their class, race, gender or any other binding force. None of this means that these things don’t matter – the paradox is that in an unequal world they matter more than ever, as demonstrated by freezing social mobility and static median wages.

The circumstances are defined by a loss in faith in elites. Unfortunately, it’s not a case of the bankers, the Murdoch media, and austerity Osborne on one side with Labour, as the people’s representatives, on the other. Labour is seen as part of the problem too. So we have a volatile environment with few credible political answers out there combined with very low levels of trust. If Labour is anything other than humble, its arguments will fall on deaf ears.

Such is the scale of national challenge – economic primarily but also political and social – that timid solutions are insufficient. Never has the task been so challenging: to reassure and simultaneously provide a new national vision. It starts with those real doorstep conversations but there is national conversation too.

Without a convincing argument for nothing short of national reconstruction, Labour will fail to convince as an alternative. The UK is a battleship that has been torpedoed. Some want to just carry on regardless despite the gaping hole in our hull. No cuts, no deceleration, no retreat, no surrender. Osborne and his crew think we should just give up. Turn off the engines and sink gallantly. Maybe a rescue mission will turn up. The better course is to get back to harbour and repair the damage so we can set sail again. That is the smarter argument than a kind of Tea Party left populism or a pessimistic right can offer.

There are some basic elements to this. Without fiscal credibility – getting the ship back to harbour – there will be no political credibility. That’s the starting point. There isn’t a growth-only pathway out of deficit. That doesn’t mean Osborne-esque austerity. In fact, there is scope for bringing forward growth-rich capital investments not only in infrastructure but in housing, skills and youth unemployment programmes too.

Investment should be more widely defined – why is road building ‘investment’ but skills for the workplace not? It doesn’t really make much sense. It was house-building that dragged us out of depression in the 1930s (not fiscally funded it should be noted) and created a boom in the standard of living in the 1950s. We need more houses so we should build them and grow the economy too.

This brings us on to debt. There is good debt and bad debt. Debt that contributes to short-term growth and raises future growth potential is justifiable. Such interventions can be made without harming the medium-term fiscal position (and Institute for Fiscal Studies supports this position up to a point) – and may even help it. A more detailed understanding of the economic impact of particular investment – including that which is debt-financed – is needed from the Office for Budget Responsibility. That way it will be clear to financial markets what the strategy is and that it is based on sound principles.

A dense manifesto is not required. Instead, it is crunchy symbolic policies in the areas that matter to voters which will help communicate what Labour is about. On work, education, health, crime, welfare and immigration, Labour has to show what it is about. The reconstruction job is not just economic; it’s social and political too. Trust is hard won but easily lost. Symbolic policies are a careful way of rebuilding some faith and getting the benefit of doubt.

There is something beyond practicalities that is just as important. Electoral politics is primarily an emotional pursuit; governing tends to lean rather more heavily on the rational brain. The purpose of listening ad engaging in conversation – through real lives not just opinion polls – is taking the emotional temperature of people and understanding their anger and anxiety.

Labour wins when it combines method with meaning. It is not about working out what is the targeted and popular message and policy. It more about emotional intelligence and empathetic sensitivity. Your story has to articulate a new national spirit. The best and most instinctive leaders understand this. The purpose of conversation then is not about data and marketing. It’s about understanding and personal interaction.

There isn’t a way of putting this into words on a page – it’s more elusive than that. Labour’s next majority will be built on mission and meaning. The language of national reconstruction must match a credible argument. It is difficult for any party to win a majority in these fraught, volatile and polarised times. This won’t be easy but if Labour is at the top of its game – as it was in 1945, 1964 and 1997 – then it can be done. That’s why those doorstep conversations are about them not us. And the same goes for a mission of national reconstruction. Both the practical and the emotional matter.

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