A strategy for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to succeed
The Labour leadership contest is all but over. Jeremy Corbyn has won, possibly with an even greater democratic mandate than last year. I am desperate for his leadership to succeed. That is the starting point and purpose of this piece. The challenges faced by the party cannot, to say the least, be understated. At a time of national crisis — when it should have been the Conservatives under intense scrutiny — certain Labour MPs triggered an internal party revolt. When combined with an attempt to keep the elected leader off the ballot paper, to stop new members from voting, and purging voters for the most ridiculous and inconsistent reasons, the revolt’s primary accomplishments have been to inject further rage into the relationship between Labour MPs and members, and suppress the party’s opinion poll ratings. But despite successes in by-elections and mayoral elections, Labour was not in a good polling position before the coup: Labour has not enjoyed a lead in the polling averages since April 2015 (in contrast to Ed Miliband in his first year, who went on to lose), and Jeremy Corbyn is the only Leader of the Opposition never to have been granted a positive approval rating. The poor polling has two causes: an intransigent section of the PLP, some of whom tried to undermine the elected leader from the beginning; and a series of strategic and communication errors on the part of the leadership which have cut through to the electorate.
With the exception of perceptive Corbyn critics such as Labour’s Lisa Nandy, there has been a failure among Corbyn’s opponents to understand why he became leader in the first place, other than effectively to angrily denounce his supporters. The abolition of the electoral college and the creation of a Labour supporters scheme — both inarguably instrumental in his rise — were introduced under pressure from the right of the party. They believed that changing the method by which Labour elected its leader would both dilute the influence of the trade unions, and anchor Labour firmly in what they define as the centre-ground of the electorate. They calculated that most non-ideological people were unwilling to join as full members, who tended to be politically unrepresentative of the wider population, but moving towards a US primary system would bring in “centrist” voters. This was a colossal miscalculation. The self-described ‘moderates’ generated minimal enthusiasm and found themselves unable to recruit significant numbers of supporters. In the past, they had a clear coherent vision: no longer and — as some of them recognise — they have left a vacuum that has been filled by something else.
Jeremy Corbyn’s critics also fail to answer a glaring problem: that they themselves have no routemap to electoral victory, instead relying on the past capital of the 1997 landslide victory. This was a dramatically different world, not only because of an exhausted and imploding Conservative administration which had been in power for 18 years, as well as a booming economy which traditionally bolsters social democratic arguments. Labour’s potential electoral coalition is today far more divided over immigration, the EU, national identity, social security and generational politics than it once was. When Blair become Prime Minister, social democrats were on the march in Western Europe’s two other major countries: France (the Socialists came to power the same year) and Germany (the Social Democrats won in 1998), as well as Italy (the centre-left won power in 1996), Portugal, Greece and several Nordic countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Labour’s landslide in 1997 cannot be divorced from these wider trends.
Today, in contrast, the so-called ‘centre-left’ is in crisis across the Western world. The German social democrats are led by Sigmar Gabriel, who has New Labour-style Third Way politics: they are currently the junior partner to the governing centre-right Christian Democrats. They must dream of achieving the poor ratings of Britain’s Labour party, which at least still gets poll scores ranging from the late 20s to the mid 30s: the German SDP’s poll ratings hover between the late teens and the early 20s, with the party finding themselves squeezed by the anti-immigrant hard right, the radical left and the Greens. In Spain, the Spanish Socialists are led by a telegenic “moderate”, and yet their support has collapsed, the radical left Podemos carving away a massive chunk of their base. In France, the embattled Socialist government is deeply unpopular, while the National Front — which blends the economic rhetoric of the left with visceral anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric — has surged in support. In Greece, the social-democratic PASOK has all but collapsed as a political force in favour of the radical SYRIZA. In the Nordic countries, a populist right — some combining anti-immigration sentiment with traditionally social democratic welfarism — are eating away at social democratic support. Italy is a rare country under centre-left leadership, but the populist Five Star movement represents a dramatic threat to the political establishment. Even in the United States, an obscure self-described socialist Senator achieved an astonishing result against Hillary Clinton: her candidacy now struggles against the racist, white nationalist demagoguery of Donald Trump.
Britain’s political convulsions cannot be divorced from these wider trends: the far closer than expected result in the Scottish referendum, the SNP wipeout of their political opponents (principally Labour), the rise of UKIP, and of course — most dramatically of all — Brexit. Corbyn’s rise is just one more symptom. Corbyn’s opponents have failed to offer a compelling answer to why they would be more successful in such a political climate. Owen Smith — a decent man who, along with his supporters, must be part of Labour’s future — has been offered as a sacrificial lamb. He has offered very similar domestic policies to Corbyn — policies Corbyn’s most determined enemies largely oppose, regarding Smith as a placeholder — while effectively championing an attempt to overturn the EU referendum result (and even refusing to write off joining the euro or the Schengen Area). This may have been a strategic pitch to a Labour selectorate traumatised by the Brexit result, but it is electoral poison. Many of those voting in the leadership contest have deep frustrations with the current leadership. If they were genuinely convinced that the alternative to Corbyn was more likely to win a general election, a large number would set aside their anger at the perceived behaviour of many Labour MPs and vote for it. They are not, and so Corbyn is set to win all over again.
Jeremy Corbyn was always going to win. But his leadership has huge challenges — to say the least — to overcome. The stakes — when it comes both the future survival of the Labour party in general and the left in particular — are astronomical. My own view was that, with victory inevitable, the leadership’s feet had to be held firmly to fire in this contest — because there are huge questions hanging over the future of the Labour party and the left as a whole. Not answering them will guarantee terrible defeat.
There are those who blame all of Labour’s current problems on the media and the Parliamentary Labour Party. To be clear: Britain’s press is not only predominantly run by right-wing moguls, but has an aggression almost unmatched in the Western world. This press has a blatant political agenda which is pursued ruthlessly and unapologetically. Dislike them all you want, fear them, resent them, but they are going nowhere. If the media can destroy any left-wing project — a patronising analysis which reduces the general public to the status of brainwashed robots — then no left-wing project has any hope. The media also becomes a convenient crutch, a means of avoiding any reflection or self-examination at all. This is fatal. There is a need for a clever strategy to deal with a hostile media, of course: but if a message is genuinely convincing, coherent and inspiring enough, it can cut through. Secondly: yes, from the beginning, there were MPs who were determined to undermine, even sabotage Corbyn’s leadership, and there are those would privately prefer Tory rule to a truly radical left Labour government. But most Labour MPs can be won over if they believed their party could win. Some may find this difficult to accept, but it is true. Winning over dozens of sceptical Labour MPs to at least cooperate is possible with the right approach. But in any case, while the media and the PLP have played their role, several mistakes in communication, message and strategy have been made — understandably, Jeremy Corbyn and his team never expected to win — and they must be rectified. The easiest thing in the world for me to do would be to deny this, to whip up even more fury against the media and the PLP, but it would render people like me complicit in the destruction of the left for the sake of ego.
If, following Corbyn’s re-election, there are loud demands for vengeance and internal battles are prioritised over trying to win over the wider population, then the left’s future will be bleak. It is critical for other voices to become dominant: those desperate for the Labour leadership to succeed, who want to build bridges within the party, deal with errors of strategy and communication, and focus on winning over a population that is largely entirely disinterested in (and bemused by) Labour’s internal travails. An open, accepting, tolerant, welcoming, generous, humane, savvy movement obsessed with winning a majority in support of authentic left ideas: that must be the goal.
Below are some ideas. They are incomplete: like how Labour wins back Scotland, or confronting the danger that Labour could lose support among black and minority ethnic communities the party should never take for granted. It is for people better qualified than me to answer these questions. A lot of what I’ve suggested could be naïve, wrong-headed, or just straightforwardly wrong, and should be debated with alternative proposals. But unless those on the left who really want to win power debate these ideas — rather than focusing on blaming enemies who are going nowhere — then there is no future.
Apologies for the length. And there will be some who believe any suggestions or critique is betrayal, that it is playing into the hands of the enemy, and so on. But this is all intended to be constructive — and to help the left win — and that is it.
Relations with the Parliamentary Labour Party
The priorities here are to overturn the vote of no confidence, reach out to as much of the PLP as possible, and reduce the tensions between the PLP and the membership.
The vote of no confidence is a critical issue. ‘172’ has become the three digits of infamy among many Corbyn supporters: the 172 Labour MPs who voted no confidence in a leader democratically elected with an enormous mandate just months previously. The grievances of the PLP have been widely discussed and aired. On the part of Corbyn supporters, the widespread feeling is that PLP has acted to overturn the democratic will of the party and is de facto at war with the membership. They feel that Jeremy Corbyn appointed a broad based Shadow Cabinet, and was rewarded only with disloyalty. Given these grievances, there is little appetite for compromise: the PLP simply need to submit or — some argue — face mass deselections.
But consider how the majority of people who aren’t engaged in the day-to-day intricacies of politics — let alone with Labour’s internal struggle — would see it in a general election. Imagine 80% of Conservative MPs had voted no-confidence in their leader, whatever the internal circumstances and however much the MPs’ actions aggrieved Conservative members. How would it be spun by Labour in a general election? Straightforward, really: why should the country have any confidence in a Tory leader who doesn’t even have the confidence of their own MPs? Some Corbyn supporters will instinctively want to treat all of these Labour MPs as an enemy and will be in no mood to assuage them. It is up to these MPs to support the elected membership, or they should simply be deselected. Corbyn tried to work with MPs from a different wing of the party, and look how they responded. But this vote of no confidence alone makes it almost impossible for Labour to not only win a general election, but avoid a terrible defeat. It is difficult to overstate the importance of overturning it.
In what is an incredibly bitter leadership contest, the PLP is treated by some as a homogenous, right-wing, Blairite bloc. But this is incorrect and a strategic dead-end. Louise Haigh, the anti-Trident, anti-austerity MP for Sheffield Heeley, is several political lightyears away from being a Blairite. So is Jo Stevens, the anti-Trident, anti-austerity MP for Cardiff Central who remains a shadow minister. Chi Onwurah, the Newcastle Central MP who criticises Labour for standing on an “austerity lite” platform in 2015, is not a Blairite. Neither is Lilian Greenwood. Or Kate Green. Or Nia Griffith. Or Lisa Nandy (!). We could go on. Yes, there is a hardcore faction of Labour MPs who genuinely would prefer Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. Their public argument is that Corbyn is unelectable; privately, they would argue that even if he wasn’t, it would be wrong for him to become Prime Minister. But there are many others who just genuinely believe the leadership is incapable of winning a general election. Some fear they will lose their seats. This could be presented as self-interest: fine, but here is where self-interest coincides with the interests of the party and left as a whole.
How can a new vote of confidence in the leader be engineered — other than the sound argument that the membership have once again democratically elected a leader and that should be accepted and respected? Firstly, the PLP have to realise that it is in their own interests to do so. If Labour crashes to defeat, there is a very considerable chance that many Labour members will simply blame the MPs. In that case, the leadership will stay in place, however bad the rout. If MPs believe a bad defeat is indeed inevitable, Corbyn’s opponents need to make sure the leadership has ownership over it. That means doing everything possible to be co-operative and not appear as obstacles to the leadership’s political strategy. The PLP must surely understand that their own future depends on their co-operation after the vote.
MPs could say they’re overturning the vote of no confidence for two reasons: firstly, to accept the democratic decision of the membership, but secondly, in exchange for concessions. These concessions would be conciliation with Corbyn opponents (making a distinction between the irreconcilables from the critics), as well as a strategy for winning a general election (or, frankly, avoiding a disastrous rout). Mandatory reselection should continue to be opposed by the leadership (it is unlikely to be endorsed by the NEC, in any case) and the existing arrangements for selections after the boundary changes should be maintained. Some believe that this is waving a white flag of surrender. But if MPs believe that they will be deselected — which they may think is inevitable however they behave — it won’t force them into line: they will simply have no incentive whatsoever to cooperate. This will make the membership even more angry, leading to an ever more poisonous relationship between MPs and members. Indeed, it raises the very real possibility of a split, which would be utterly fatal to both sides (as I explain below). In any case, many MPs will simply decide that they are likely to be defeated in a general election anyway, so better to go down fighting. Getting more MPs on the left of the party can be achieved through natural attrition, i.e. MPs or parliamentary candidates step down, automatically triggering selection succession races: that’s how MPs such as say, Clive Lewis (now Shadow Defence Secretary) were selected.
The role of Shadow Cabinet — with MPs wooed into returning — has to be upgraded so it becomes a collective executive. There can be no return to elections for the Shadow Cabinet as a whole, because clearly that would deprive Corbyn of any allies, making effective leadership impossible. But what about agreeing to the PLP electing a portion of the Shadow Cabinet? The leadership would still be able to place its allies into key positions, while the PLP would ensure its favoured representatives were at the top table. The mistake made last year was putting certain non-Corbyn supporters in the wrong posts. It is said that Labour is now two parties: if so, formalising a coalition-style agreement is the only way of making it work. There could be a quid pro quo here: in exchange, MPs should accept a greater role for members in setting the party’s policy agenda. On the economy, the NHS, education, workers’ rights and social security, there is more agreement across most of the PLP than is sometimes admitted. These areas of agreements should be relentlessly focused on, rather than areas which are both divisive and more marginal to the concerns of the wider electorate. Take Theresa May’s proposal for the reintroduction of selection in schools at the age of 11: here is an issue that unites the Labour Party and divides the Tories, and Jeremy Corbyn’s finest PMQs was when he hammered away at it. The linchpin of an agreement with the PLP, of course, should be a strategy that has broad electoral appeal.
Another step must include conciliation with Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson. If it’s unreasonable to remove a leader elected with his own mandate less than a year ago, surely the same logic applies to the deputy leader: in any case, if he was removed, who would make it on to the ballot paper to replace him? Again, it’s quid pro quo: the elected deputy leader should be expected to work with and support the leader democratically elected by the membership. In exchange, Watson should be brought into key discussions and consulted on key policy and strategic decisions.
A charm offensive (with more of the first word than the second) across the PLP is key. That means not just appealing to the soft left, or those who don’t have politics that can easily be compartmentalised. The leadership should try and work with MPs who are overtly hostile on an issue by issue basis. This would showcase an inclusive approach, particularly if the leadership could show that they are prepared to reach out to the most hostile of MPs. Take the Labour MP for Ilford North, Wes Streeting. We are on different wings of the Labour coalition and he has made no secret of his hostility towards the leadership, making him something of a hate figure among the most dedicated Corbyn supporters. But he’s one of the all too few MPs from a working-class background, who opposed the Iraq war, voted against the bombing of Syria, and supports renationalising the railways. Yes, Streeting is no supporter of Corbyn, and that’s putting it mildly. But it would be impressive indeed if the leadership reached out to someone as opposed to them as Streeting and looked for common ground where possible. What campaigns or causes would you like to focus on? We know you have serious issues and concerns about the leadership, but could we meet semi-regularly to discuss them and work towards addressing them? Tony Blair used to have regular one-on-one chats with Dennis Skinner, for example: it was clever politics to do so.
If this approach is taken, if uncompromising opponents of Jeremy Corbyn publicly attack and undermine the leadership in a vicious way, then they look like the aggressors and simply isolate themselves. The response should be sorrow rather than anger: we are disappointed that they are bitterly attacking their own side rather than focusing on the Tories. The leadership looks open and inclusive: their internal opponents look like the unreasonable sect. Public calls for deselections looks intolerant and wide-eyed to most people, and simply turns those MPs into victims. Neither will it make it more likely for CLPs to deselect the MPs anyway — it might actually help win sympathy votes — and it’s up to CLPs to decide who their candidates are.
Some of Corbyn’s strongest supporters may oppose such an agreement. If the main opponent is now the PLP rather than the Conservative Government, then this approach makes sense: but if that’s the case, then the political future is bleak indeed and the people for whom Labour was set up as a party will be the ones who suffer most. Without such concessions, electoral oblivion awaits. Corbyn remains as leader; the key policy agenda — such as a genuine alternative to the Tories’ economic agenda — is safeguarded; and the fatal loss in Parliamentary confidence is potentially overcome. The choice is between forging some sort of agreement, or Labour’s decimation. Labour MPs and Corbyn supporters may blame each other for electoral calamity, but it will be of little comfort in possibly long decades of Tory rule to come.
There are some siren voices agitating for the self-styled ‘moderates’ to form their own party. This is suicide. For a start, the forces opposed to Corbyn have different political perspectives: some are economically liberal and pro-immigration, others are more traditionally socially democratic and anti-immigration. But in any case, our electoral system makes it impossible. Two parties representing two different wings of the Labour coalition standing candidates against each other would simply allow Conservatives — or other parties — to slide through the middle. It would be mutually assured destruction, ensuring very limited parliamentary representation for both factions and Conservative rule for decades. Some will look back at the 1980s at the SDP split from Labour in anger, that those who split helped the Tories to rule. So why would they wish to allow a similar scenario to happen — this time with even more MPs involved — without doing everything possible to stop it?
Labour unity may seem nigh impossible right now, but all sides have a responsibility to strive for it. That means concessions on both sides. The vote of no confidence can be reversed if Labour MPs can say that the leadership has understood its grievances and acted on them. Basically the script needs to go like this: MPs who voted no confidence need to be able to say, “yes, I was sceptical to say the least, the teething problems were deeply unhelpful, but I’ve been genuinely impressed by the progress that has been made, the leadership has shown a willingness and determination to offer a unifying and winning agenda, and that’s why I now have restored confidence in them.” That doesn’t mean Labour MPs are then silenced and have to submit to the leadership uncritically, but rather to accept the democratic will of the party membership, and to dissent in a way that does not damage Labour’s electoral prospects. All sides should focus on the issues that unite them. Easy? No. But the alternative is mutually assured destruction.
Labour has been infused by an extremely enthusiastic mass membership, and is now perhaps the biggest political party in Europe. This is an incredible, inspiring achievement. But it represents potential — and big potential — right now more than anything else. The evidence suggests that — while there has been sizeable attendance at meetings and rallies often called at short notice — there has not been a significant increase in door knocking, for example. Evidence in Britain and the United States shows that door to door campaigning really does have a very significant impact. It’s not enough alone: it cannot overcome a chronic lack of faith in a party’s leadership or management of the economy, for example. But it increases turnout among your supporters and is an essential part of any election campaign. Those who don’t go canvassing often have reservations about it — doesn’t it just annoy people? But actually (although there are times for when door knocking is at an inconvenient time) a more frequent complaint is “you only knock on my door when there’s an election on the way”: in other words, too little canvassing. Ed Miliband’s leadership used to boast of having had 5 million conversations. Often these conversations amounted to: ‘Are you voting Labour? No.’ The end. Having more dynamic conversations about issues which affect people’s daily lives is important.
For many new members, knocking on strangers’ doors is a daunting prospect (and in any case local Labour parties have been suspended for several weeks). It’s long-standing members who tend to be the most dedicated door knockers: and, according to the polling, it is this group with least confidence in the leadership, which does not bode well for Labour’s ground war strategy unless something is done. As soon as the leadership race is over, a national strategy to train up new members in canvassing needs to be set up. There should be national day of action, specifically getting new members to go out and campaign: making them fun, by combining them with socials. What if election to certain party roles was made conditional on a certain amount of campaigning? Often it’s simply about giving people the confidence: but rather than simply getting people’s voter intentions, the canvassing should be an opportunity to discuss the issues that local people care about. New members should be encouraged to take part in leafletting, canvassing and stalls in town centres. Local ward organisers should make approaching these new members their absolute priority. New members need to understand that if they want Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to succeed, voting for him is not enough — they have to go into their communities to campaign.
The evidence suggests that the membership surge is lopsided: a huge increase in some safe seats and (curiously enough) unwinnable seats, but often not in marginals and working-class heartlands at risk of becoming marginals. The danger is of a ground war that focuses on piling up votes in safe seats. That’s why there needs to be a strategy to bus members into marginals for big campaign days. Door-to-do canvassing isn’t the only means members can interact with voters, of course: telephone canvassing via a phone app is another means. But offering training — not least so people have the confidence to speak to strangers — is still important. Momentum — wrongly and often outrageously maligned by the media — can play a key role here.
Given Labour is now such a sizeable mass movement, there is potential to be even more ambitious. What about setting up a union for private tenants? What about a credit union? What about setting up food banks that actually organise people who use them? Community-based campaigning urgently needs to be a priority — but it needs new members with the willingness to sacrifice time for it to happen.
Many members feel they are part of a movement under relentless attack. Feeling under siege can lead to a tendency to lash out at anybody deemed to be aiding and abetting the enemy in what feels like war. But this has to be resisted otherwise the membership will become something like a political sub-culture with its own way of communicating, looking inward and unable to reach out to those who are not already convinced. An attitude of inclusivity, of patiently appealing to the currently sceptical, needs to be cultivated. If even those on the left are regarded with great suspicion — even hostility — then it will become very difficult to reach out to people with current views on, say, immigration or social security that make most Labour members feel very uncomfortable indeed.
Jeremy Corbyn’s best PMQs was where he zoned in on grammar schools. He stuck to one issue — an issue that unites Labour and divides the Tories. He could quote a vast array of experts who opposed selection, and ask Theresa May for an example of any expert who backed it — and get no response. He could quote Conservative politicians, not least David Cameron, to highlight divisions. Theresa May was left floundering, removing some of the gloss she’s enjoyed in her media-fuelled honeymoon.
Quoting the odd case study to elaborate a wider point still has its place, but must no longer define PMQs. Erratically switching from one topic to another doesn’t work, because it means you can’t build pressure on the government, not least with follow-up questions. Other than when an occasion might demand splitting his six questions in half if there are two burning topics, Jeremy Corbyn should just stick to one topic each time. Priorities should be topics which unite Labour and divide the Tories, as well as outflanking the Conservatives on areas where Labour is perceived to be weak, e.g. homeownership (but in a way that doesn’t serve to backfire and highlight weaknesses). Few watch PMQs, but good performances trickle into the media and help shape media narratives, as well as boosting morale within the PLP.
Media strategy and messaging
Despite some gaffes (like ‘traingate’ and suggesting the banning of after-work drinks), there have been some encouraging signs of improvement in the Corbyn camp’s media strategy: regular press releases and political interventions, for example. This is down to the hard work of people like the recently appointed press officer, Matt Zarb-Cousin. The media strategy before this leadership campaign was often troubling, not least when it came to broadcast media.
There are some who argue that the mainstream media should be effectively bypassed. When Labour figures attack the media or refuse to speak to journalists, they cheer. Finally, Labour is showing the sort of contempt for the right-wing media that they deserve! This is a fatal approach. Yes, the press is largely run by a small group of right-wing oligarchs who will happily flail any figure or movement which challenges the status quo, whether they regard these individuals or causes as a genuine threat or not. Yes, the media is quite clearly heavily biased against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour (which polls show most of the British people believe, but note that doesn’t make them support Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party: i.e. they’re factoring in media bias when they make their political decisions). But the mainstream media is still where most people get their news. Yes, print media is declining, but it is still read by millions and sets the agenda for broadcast media. Not appearing in the media doesn’t stop the media being negative about you. They’ll be negative whatever you do. At least by having a clear, coherent presence in the media, you have a chance of getting a message across to the people who are not members of ‘I Support Jeremy Corbyn’ Facebook groups or who are turning up to rallies.
It’s tempting to spend a lot of time complaining about unfair media treatment. It is unfair. Denouncing it will fire up your core supporters. But it generally doesn’t go down well with the broader population. When Sadiq Khan stood for London’s mayoralty, he was smeared as an Islamist extremist stooge. It must have felt incredibly unpleasant, but he never complained about it, instead continuing to promote an optimistic, positive message. That’s worth learning from.
Here are some basic ideas. If you do not define yourself, you will be defined by your enemies. If you say something once, it is unlikely to sink in for almost anybody. Most people are not politicos who spend large chunks of their lives absorbed by political goings on. They are not, generally speaking, discussing politics on Twitter or sharing Facebook memes. They may watch the 10 O’Clock News or listen to the short news slots on Radio 2. The Tories understand this and repeat messages over and over again until their opponents tear their hair out: we’re clearing up Labour’s mess, we’re balancing the books, fixing the roof while the sun is shining, reforming welfare (often with a message stigmatising claimants), we’re taking the low paid out of tax, and so on. David Cameron’s governments were profoundly ideological, but were at pains to suggest otherwise: they consciously projected an image of competence, stability and security (it almost sounds like a joke now, but it was effective at the time). A workman-like image above all else: “rolling up our sleeves to get on with the job”, as David Cameron liked to say. Ed Miliband’s Labour got this badly wrong: they lurched from vision to vision, all of which were generally abstract to most people in any case. Like “squeezed middle”, “promise of Britain”, “One Nation Labour”, redistribution, and so on. There was the “cost of living crisis” throughout, but the difference in the parties’ approach was that Labour was offering chin-stroking analyses — often presented a bit like wonkish seminars — while the Tories’ repeated messages were about solutions. Ed Miliband’s team often seemed to believe that a set-piece speech on, say, immigration would deal with the issue. It didn’t.
If Labour comes up with a package of policies for older people, for example, it needs to be presented with a core message that can be repeated over and over again — for example: A Better Deal for Older People. This phrase is then repeated by Jeremy Corbyn, Shadow Cabinet ministers, backbenchers, etc, over and over again. When opponents start tearing their out at A Better Deal for Older People, and people start mocking its repetition (let me guess — he’s going to say A Better Deal for Older People?) that’s a sign of success: it is cutting through. If there is a scatter gun approach — basically no core messages repeated ad infinitum — then nothing will sink in, and Labour will continue to be defined by the repeated hostile messages of the Tories and the media. Preferably, there should be repeated core messages that put the Tories on the defensive: as Ronald Reagan once sagely observed, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” That was the whole point of the monstrously unjust — and politically effective — benefit cap: “nobody on welfare should get more than someone in work” was the argument to justify it. Labour’s response is inevitably full of long caveats and to millions of people looks like defending the indefensible, reinforcing the Tories’ intended definition of their foes. That should be Labour’s approach too.
These core messages have to be shoehorned into every interview, regardless of the line of questioning. Andrew Marr successfully ensnared Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year with a series of questions about everything from the Falklands War to secondary picketing. To many of Corbyn’s supporters, the fact he simply answered the questions he was presented is evidence of a refreshing honesty and plain speaking. But it clearly allowed Corbyn to be presented in an entirely negative way, bolstering efforts to frame him as a 1980s throwback. The strategy here should be: “Instead of going back to issues from the past that just aren’t relevant to the challenges we face as a country, I want to talk about our plans for X”, or “My leadership is about facing up to the challenges of the future, not rehashing stale debates from the past.”
Overall, there should be a bold pitch for optimism. Highlighting the injustices that need to be overcome is important but can appear miserable and depressing. The Labour leadership should borrow from Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ approach: sunny optimism. This is a brilliant country, with so much talent and potential, and look how much better we could make it together. Make people feel good about themselves and their potential role in building something new.
Being on the receiving end of constant media attention can be very irritating, particularly when they’re parked outside your house all the time. But that is part of the package that comes with being at the centre of British politics. Again, to ardent supporters, refusing to speak to reporters or arguing with them can seem heartening and refreshing: Bravo! Not taking the nonsense of the MSM! Finally! But the risk is to the millions who aren’t ardent supporters, it can look intemperate, aloof, even arrogant. Videos of grumpy-looking politicians on repeat is not a good look. Always smiling, being cheerful (except on solemn occasions when that’s inappropriate) — even if you just want to scream at the world — that’s what you have to do. There was a masterclass from Charlie Falconer last year, being pursued by reporters. He refuses to answer questions, saying over and over again that he’s just on his way to his car. It’s rather endearing, really.
Even if a media organisation is hostile, it doesn’t mean all journalists working there are. Not everybody working at, say, The Telegraph actually shares the same politics as the newspaper’s editors and owners. Relationships with journalists who may not be politically sympathetic but do believe in a sense of fair play should be nurtured. Being nice to people and developing a friendly rapport can go a long way. Send them a card if they’ve had a personal bereavement, write handwritten letters appreciating a report they’ve written on some social issue — basically just be warm and friendly. Some on the left will more than raise an eyebrow at this: are you seriously suggesting the systemic opposition of the right-wing media can be overcome by being nice to the odd journalists? (Journalists might be suggested too by the idea I’m somehow suggesting politicians should bribe them with um handwritten letters). No: but building friendly relationships with certain journalists can achieve some results, however limited, in terms of at least making them feel Labour is waging war against them. During this leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn wrote a piece reaching out to older voters and Tories for The Telegraph — that’s exactly the sort of approach that should be built on. Right-wing newspapers should be offered interviews and exclusive announcements. If journalists all feel universally maligned by the party leadership, they may believe there is little incentive to provide any even fair coverage at all — and if they are bypassed altogether, then they may ignore Labour altogether.
Broadcast media should of course be a priority. Radio 2 has 15 million listeners — 4 million more than voted for the Tories at the last election. A Radio 2 Strategy would be clever indeed. Media training should be offered to supportive new intake MPs so that the number of sympathetic MPs who can regularly appear on TV and radio is expanded.
There needs to be a move away from a defensive agenda, too. Planning ahead — what are the key events in the coming months and how can we respond to them as they happen in a way that helps our framing?– is critical. There should be proper coordination so when, say, there is a week committed to policies for older Britons, there are no distractions elsewhere.
Dealing with areas on which the leadership is perceived as weak is critical. Competence is a key element: presenting an image of being a steady hand on the till every single day — You’re Secure With Labour etc. And: unity (the hard part), reaching out to middle-income voters and older voters, not being extreme, defending the nation’s security, that kind of thing. Projecting an image of strength (Corbyn could use the fact he’s been under siege and survived to his advantage). How can we neutralise these perceived weaknesses? How can we force opponents on the defensive? How can we set the agenda, not least by thinking ahead to likely upcoming events? How can we show we understand the key issues and concerns of the British people and come up with policies that relate to them? What key messages do we want to hammer away at relentlessly underpinning everything we say? All of these questions must underpin a media strategy.
Social media is sometimes presented as a means to bypass the mainstream media. But it can only be a complement, not a substitute. Take Twitter: the research suggests its regular users are not representative of the wider population, typically being younger and more affluent. Older voters who are least likely to support Labour are much less likely to be active users of Twitter. In any case, the numbers of people actively consuming news about politics on Twitter — particularly alternative or dissenting political standpoints — is a very small proportion of the population indeed, and generally consists of the already politicised. Facebook reaches a broader and more representative section of the population, but again, those using it to absorb left-wing political material are a very small fraction of the overall population. Facebook stats can be misleading: a Facebook video registers a view if someone sees it for three seconds — i.e. scanning through their news feed: the same goes when users ‘see’ statuses, memes, and so on. Those approaches have their place, but more to mobilise existing (at least potential) activists.
A Facebook strategy that is effective means learning from the Conservatives at the last general election. That means extensive resources for Facebook advertising, but used cleverly. The Tories would tailor their messages for certain demographics. Labour, on the other hand, used Facebook advertising indiscriminately. Labour’s other mistake was to continually go for messages that attracted the most engagement. That sounds like it makes sense, but what it meant is they were firing up their core supporters, rather than reaching out to people who were not convinced. Labour have to learn from these mistakes: having tailored advertising for each demographic, and a strategy that doesn’t confuse engagement statistics for success.
Labour could also experiment: what about a website called What Labour Will Do For You where people could put in their personal circumstances (age, employment status, housing type, etc) and find out what policies Labour is currently offering specifically for them. Such an exercise could also prove useful in forcing Labour’s leadership team to think about policies that would benefit as much of the population as possible.
One of the few advantages of Brexit is that it has the potential to grant Labour a hearing on the economy which it would not otherwise have. George Osborne’s fiscal rules were obliterated. Prominent Tories such as Stephen Crabb floated infrastructure spending of £100 billion. The fact that so many people voted for Brexit was, in part, because of an economic model that did not work for them or their families. And, frankly, Brexit showed that a majority of people were willing to brave threats of economic insecurity — even economic collapse — if offered an alternative vision that was compelling enough.
The economist Prof. Simon Wren-Lewis believes that Labour’s economic message should be integral to a vision of a hopeful future. “Cast the Conservatives as the party that wants to go backwards, but in a changing world we cannot successfully do that.” This is critical: a message that defines Labour as forward-looking, as opposed to the backward-looking approach of the Tories. One phrase he suggests could be repeatedly endlessly is: “To make a better future, we must invest in the future.” A message along these lines — repeated ad infinitum — is critical to framing economic policies. As Wren-Lewis puts it, the argument can be this: As successful firms borrow to invest in the future, so must our country.
Labour’s central economic message has to be framed around key messages: The party of investment. The party of growth. The party of opportunity. But again, there is no point shifting from message to message, or bombarding the public with a series of arguments lacking an accessible core vision.
Unless Labour wins over a larger proportion of older voters, then it has little chance of forming a national government ever again. Britain has an ageing population and a growing number of older voters are opting for the Conservatives. At the last general election, the Tories only had a lead amongst people aged over 44. Nearly eight out of ten voters over the age of 65 voted turned out to vote, and the Tories had an astonishing 24 point lead over Labour. Back in 2005 — when Labour only narrowly won the popular vote — the gap was only 6 points. One of the undeniable achievements of the 1997–2010 Labour governments was a steep reduction in pensioner poverty, and, since then, Tory administrations have largely protected pensioners from government cuts.
Labour needs to relentlessly court older voters: the demographic Jeremy Corbyn himself belongs to. It cannot be an aside, something occasionally tagged on to other more important messages. Labour has to position itself as the party of older people. It needs to hammer away at messages tailored for the needs of older people every single day. Overcoming such a deficit in support among older people is extremely challenging, to say, the least, but at least reducing it will make a Labour-led government at least plausible.
Britain’s state pension is considerably lower than the European average. Labour should offer a fully funded commitment to increase it above what the government is offering. The former pensions minister Ros Altmann has called for the state pension’s triple lock to be abolished and has suggested that Theresa May is more amenable to such a demand than David Cameron. The government has said that it will remain for this Parliamentary term, but Labour should argue that it is threatened by the Conservatives and that only they will commit to its indefinite retention.
The crisis of social care is another key line of attack. People work much of their lives and contribute in all sorts of way to our country, and the least they should expect is a comfortable, decent retirement. But the terrible plight of social care means that many older Britons are deprived of this basic right. A national care service should be an absolute priority. How could it be funded? A bold move would be to abolish inheritance tax in its current form and — as the Green Party have suggested — replace it with an ‘accession tax’. This tax is levied on the wealth of the recipient, rather than of the deceased. It is much harder, therefore, to portray as a ‘death tax’, and could win greater acceptance among older people. This accession tax would be specifically for funding a national care system for older people.
Another problem among older people can be isolation and loneliness. There are also growing inter-generational divisions that need tackling. What about a National Companionship Scheme whereby young volunteers give up a few hours each week to spend time with older people who lack living close relatives, for example? In the Netherlands, students are given free accommodation in exchange for giving up hours to look after elderly people. Such means of incentivising young people to sacrifice time to provide company and comfort for older people should be investigated.
Whatever Labour decides on appealing to older Britons, these are messages that must be repeated over and over again. Above all, the party needs to show it genuinely at least cares about the needs and concerns of older Britons: many currently feel they just don’t. Labour could then have some hope of eroding the Conservatives’ colossal lead among older Britons.
It is predicted that there will be more self-employed people than public sector workers in the coming years. The trap the left could fall into is to portray self-employment in an entirely negative light, as rampant exploitation and nothing more. In actual fact, research suggests that self-employed people have higher job satisfaction than other workers. This is hardly surprising in a country where so much power is concentrated in the hands of employers. Self-employed people can feel liberated from the constraints of normal employment: the set office hours, the hierarchy, the being at the perpetual whim of employers. It’s also worth distinguishing between self-employed people before and after the financial crash. The relatively new self-employed have (on average) more precarious lives than those that cam before: fewer hours and lower incomes.
Labour should celebrate and laud the self-employed, making it clear the party accepts and understands their independence. Independence, not insecurity: that should be the approach. Policies to grant self-employed people social security entitlements — like paid sick leave and maternity leave — should be introduced. The failure of banks to lend to self-employed people — for businesses or mortgages — should be tackled. A national scheme to compel larger businesses to pay up invoices within 28 days or automatically be charged interest should be proposed. Self-employed people like to work wherever they happen to be: an office on the move. That’s why a programme to drastically upgrade Britain’s wifi infrastructure — to bring it up to the standard of Southeast Asian countries, for example — should be advanced. What about special spaces for self-employed people to work at, rather than having to fight for space in noisy cafes? What about David Cameron’s attack on tax credits — which would have hit hundreds of thousands of self-employed people — or indeed universal credit rules which could financially penalise the self-employed? There are so many lines of attack and Labour should relentlessly focus on them.
After Corbyn took over I was particularly keen Labour took a lead on self-employment and here was the tack I felt should be taken, and still do (though the debate on tax credits has moved — universal credit is now more of an issue):
“I never cease to be inspired and amazed by the creativity, the ideas, the dynamism of self-employed people. If you are self-employed, I know you value your independence, the sense of being your own boss. But there are all too few politicians who are speaking out for you. Life has become so much harder, so much more precarious, for so many of you. The Tories are stripping away tax credits many of you rely on. Hours can be hard to come by, and, for too many of you, income has been sliding. You lack the pensions, the paid leave and the other rights others take for granted. You spend too much of your life chasing invoices to be paid. You are starved of desperately needed credit from the banks, and often struggle to be accepted for a mortgage. You pay your taxes while big businesses exploit loopholes so that they don’t have to, putting you at a competitive disadvantage.
And here is my pledge to the self-employed people of this country. This party will be your restless champion. If you are a small business, we will freeze your business rates. We will compel big businesses to pull their weight and pay their rightful share of tax. We will set up a National Investment Bank to give you the finance and support you need. We will review the social security that you are entitled to so that you have the same rights as others. We will invest in our country’s all too patchy digital infrastructure. We will control rents so that you can afford your shops and your offices. Your only limit should be your imagination. We will make your life easier so your talents can thrive unhindered.”
Again, there is no point pitching messages tailored for self-employed people unless they are relentlessly repeated.
Labour has to have a three-pronged attack on housing: giving councils the power to build a new generation of council housing, granting the aspiration of hundreds of thousands of families for an affordable home; regulating the private rented sector so the next generation have somewhere affordable and secure to live; and reversing the dramatic fall in homeownership under the Tories.
Other than satisfying the needs of families to live somewhere decent, building a new generation of good quality council housing is important because it would help defuse some of the tensions that particularly inflame anti-immigration sentiment. But, putting it bluntly, a commitment to building council housing is not something that will surprise many voters about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Polls show that a huge majority of people aspire to homeownership: hardly surprising in a country in which council housing has become so residualised and the private rented sector is insecure. But such an overwhelming aspiration cannot be ignored. Since the Tories came to power, there are a quarter of a million fewer homeowners, and homeownership among young Britons is in a state of collapse (putting pressure on parents, too, whether it be their children living with them longer or contributing more to expensive deposits). Why not be bold: abolish stamp duty as well as council tax, replacing both with some form of land value tax or at least tax bands which penalise low-income and middle-income Britain less and hike the amount higher-income Britons pay? Corbyn and his allies have spoken about local authority mortgages: this needs to be fleshed out. And again, if Labour is going to make its own pitch on homeownership — a National Homeownership Scheme (or preferably something more catchy) — it cannot be the occasional question at Prime Ministers’ Questions: it should be launched with much fanfare and has to be repeated over and over again with the solutions at the absolute core.
Immigration is an extremely fraught subject for Labour, to say the least. This issue is critical, and this section far too short: I am not going to pretend to have the answers here, and our failure to produce solutions presents us with an existential crisis. The party’s electoral coalition includes younger Britons in major cities who are relatively well-disposed to immigration and who are seriously alienated by anti-immigration rhetoric; and older working-class voters in particular in small towns who feel aggrieved by the current level of immigration.
There are various tacks the Labour leadership should pursue. Corbyn has spoken about the abolition of the Migrant Impact Fund, which gave extra resources for communities with higher levels of immigration. This potentially would popularise the benefits of immigration: EU immigrants pay in more than they get back, but that’s an abstraction to most people. If that money is ringfenced and used for communities with higher levels of immigration, it seems far more real and fair.
Similarly, people have concerns about integration. But English language services are not properly resourced because of government cuts and a failure of investment: that should be another priority. One in four nurses are recruited abroad, partly because the government has cut back on nurse training places every single year since 2010. Again, it’s a story of a failure to invest. Labour’s line on immigration could be linked to a broader case for the need for investment.
As Home Secretary, Theresa May failed to meet the targets on immigration set by the government. The focus here should be on politicians making promises that cannot be kept, undermining people’s faith in politics. Here is another line of attack.
But again, if these are the sorts of lines Labour are going to take on immigration, they have to be repeated confidently over and over again.
The European Union
Given the issue of Britain’s relationship with the EU is inextricably linked to immigration sentiments, Brexit represents a similar faultline. Owen Smith’s campaign’s biggest error was to propose Labour should fight for Britain should stay in the EU, and even refused to rule out joining the Schengen Agreement or the euro. This is disastrous. If the EU referendum had been run using our outdated electoral system, Leave would have won by a landslide. That’s because Remain piled up votes in certain areas: big English cities like London and Manchester, as well as Scotland. Labour appearing to oppose the democratic verdict of the British people would send a message of contempt, and allow political parties such as UKIP or the Tories to attract Labour voters who voted for Brexit.
Labour instead has to make the argument for respecting the will of the British people but achieving a just Brexit: red lines such as protecting workers’ rights and the rights of EU immigrants in Britain (which polls show both Leave and Remain voters overwhelmingly support), as well as membership of the single market. There are those who argue that Britain should argue for some form of new referendum, but there is currently little appetite for that (including among Remain voters) and it risks looking contemptuous. Labour can also review this situation if mass disillusionment with Brexit sets in — but as for now, it’s about avoiding a Brexit on the terms of the Tory Right.
Jeremy Corbyn’s main passion is, naturally, to champion the needs of people who live in the most difficult of circumstances. The only way their lives can be transformed is by building a broad coalition of people: that’s what the left always sought to do. That’s of those living in real hardship; the people scraping by; and the middle-class people who face growing insecurity and worry their children will have a less comfortable life than their own. Together, that represents a majority of Britain.
Without sounding overly cynical, people know that Jeremy Corbyn cares deeply about the people who struggle the most. Even here, there is room for improvement: people do not generally describe themselves as “poor” (even if they are), and certainly not as “vulnerable”.
At the last general election, people on middle-incomes had little sense about what Labour would do for them. Theresa May is now making an audacious attempt to focus on this vast swathe of Britain. Labour must not let her get away with it. Scraping By Britain, Doing OK Britain — whatever you want to call it — needs answers. Some of the answers in this blog could be packaged together and relentlessly repeated over again. It is absolutely fundamental members of this demographic believe that Labour represents them and will champion their interests.
Some on the activist left regard any talk of patriotism — particularly in the English context — as synonymous with chauvinism, bigotry, and imperialism. But there are many naturally Labour-inclined English people for whom national identity is very important, not least because of the rise of Scottish national identity. The media and the Tories have deliberately put great effort into portraying Jeremy Corbyn as someone who is hostile to his own country — even a threat to it. People may snort at this on social media, but it is a pernicious narrative that is deadly effective in parts of England in particular.
The Labour leadership need to push back at this, and passionately so. There is nothing more patriotic than ridding your country of injustice. There is nothing more patriotic than defending proud national institutions like the NHS and the BBC. There is nothing more patriotic than wanting to build a country in the interests of the majority. What is patriotic about forcing the majority to pay for the greed of a minority? What is patriotic about leaving millions of working people scraping by in such a rich country? What is patriotic about undermining the great rights and freedoms our ancestors fought for at such cost? One leftist commentator has suggested to me Sadiq Khan’s approach to an inclusive progressive patriotism — see his Twitter picture with Mo Farah — is an example that can be learned from.
Such a pitch should draw on the great achievements of British people in the past — from politics to science to sport. Look at what we can achieve as a country. Look at how great we can be. Just look at the potential that could be set free if we only had the determination, courage and resilience. Make people feel good about themselves. Linking it to a great history of Britain that inspires people, and a history that can be built on to bring a happy, prosperous, secure future.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, the Tories instantly hammered away at the claim he was a threat to the national security. People laugh on social media at that kind of thing, but it does cut through. Clive Lewis as Shadow Defence Secretary is a good strategic move because Lewis is a former soldier who fought in Afghanistan. Those credentials — Labour’s defence man is a soldier who fought for his country — should be emphasised. A New Deal for Soldiers and a New Deal for the Army should be unveiled: focusing on lack of investment in conventional weapons as well as equipment. The treatment of soldiers after combat — from mental distress to housing to healthcare to jobs — should be emphasised without turning them into victims. Britain Is Safe Under Labour — something along these lines, backed up with concrete policies, should be emphasised. Similarly, the government should be hammered for threatening national security because of its alliance with the extremist-exporting Saudi dictatorship — an issue which is jumping up the political agenda, and appeals to concerns of voters across the political spectrum. Labour should be frank: the safety of you and your families is at risk because of it.
Labour is at risk of suffering the same fate in many of its Northern English constituencies as it suffered in Scotland. Many Northern working-class communities feel that Labour is culturally alien to people like them. That’s why promoting Northern voices is so critical: Northern MPs should be heard on TV and radio as much as possible, relating Labour policies directly to their own communities. What about a Labour North with its own distinctive identity and set of concrete proposals? Economic policies — like an industrial strategy — should be continually tied to the needs of the North. A federal model that grants genuine power — not the devolution of cuts — to the North should be proposed.
The Labour leadership is confronted by a daunting set of challenges that must be faced up to and answered, not explained away with comforting but naïve pieties. That Jeremy Corbyn is leader in the first place is testament to the fact his opponents have no obvious routemap to power themselves. But to ignore the huge challenges ahead — and to blame nefarious forces for very real and undeniable problems that currently exist — is simply paving the way to a terrible defeat. All of those who want Labour to succeed need to debate and discuss ideas for a way forward that points towards victory, rather than simply uncritically cheerleading in the face of inevitable attacks. Indeed, the anti-Corbyn onslaught could help defeat the left by making leadership supporters so defensive that they stop debating how to win. The left has an opportunity, but it is an opportunity it could lose for a generation or more. If the challenges aren’t being met, and the polling remains disastrous, then it will be time to consider somebody else better placed to communicate radical ideas in a way that convinces and inspires, perhaps from the new intake of MPs. This is, after all, about the fate of a cause, rather than the fate of an individual. The left can win — but only as long as it doesn’t substitute enthusiasm for strategy. With the leadership contest effectively over, it is time for all of us who want Labour and the left to speak out and offer our ideas for winning. We exist, after all, not to exert pressure on those who rule, but to displace them and begin the work of building a society run in the interests of the majority, rather than a tiny self-interested elite. It won’t be easy, but it can — and must — be done.