1 Stop dancing to the Tories’ tune
The Conservatives did not win an overall majority in the 2010 general election, of course; but they did gain 97 seats, while Labour lost 91. They won those seats by telling a better story than Labour. They persuaded the public that UK national debt was at an unprecedented and unmanageable level, and that the only way to avert national bankruptcy was to choose the prudent party over the party of public spending and waste.
No matter that the story isn’t true – Wikipedia’s graph puts the level of national debt into perspective – It was a persuasive narrative. It edged them into power and gave them a rationale they could repeat endlessly when pretending that their ideological savaging of public services and the welfare state was necessary to save the UK economy.
The ease of the Conservatives’ victory on the back of their simplistic narrative so shocked Labour that they have become fixated on demonstrating to the electorate that if given the opportunity they could be just as prudent, just as conservative as the Tories. In doing so, they completely failed to recognise that the same narrative does not play for Labour as it does for the Conservatives. It only supports a party whose agenda is the dismantling of public services and the welfare state.
When he first took office as Chancellor in 2010, George Osborne set two economic rules by which he should be judged. The first, his so-called ‘fiscal mandate’, was that the structural current deficit should be in balance within five years. But those five years are not calendar years, but a rolling five years, which means, like Alice and the Red Queen, it can never reach its destination. Osborne’s ‘supplementary target’ was that UK national Debt as a share of GDP should be falling by 2015-16. In his budget of March 2013, when it became clear that the UK would not reach that target, George Osborne quietly dropped it. The level of UK national debt as a percentage of GDP either matters or it doesn’t. Osborne’s own casual abandonment of it as a target demonstrates effectively that it doesn’t.
The challenge for Labour is firstly to recognise that the Tory Chicken Little story can’t be made to work in their favour. If the best the Labour spin machine can do is minimise the advantage that narrative offers the Tories, then the narrative itself must be discredited. Although by no means an easy goal, this is achievable, because the story is untrue. Once they have convinced themselves of that, Labour must risk telling the public that the national debt crisis isn’t a crisis at all, but is a myth invented by George Osborne for his party’s ideological ends.
2 Ed Miliband must take presentation training
What ought to matter in politicians are the principles they hold and the policies they propose to turn those principles into societal change. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. There is no getting away from the fact that politicians win people over and win their votes through their rhetorical skills. Passion (whether real or faked: as long as it convinces, it has the same effect), concision, empathy; these are all key tools in the kit of the effective politician.
Ed Miliband’s rhetorical skills are poor. It’s the truth and if he has any self-awareness, he will know it. If he doesn’t, then it is in the party’s best interests for his staff to inform him of the issue.
I’m not talking about his speech impediment. There have been plenty of effective rhetoricians with impediments. They can even be a positive strength, lending veracity to the rhetorical voice. But Miliband currently seems quite incapable of expressing real passion, real anger or real vision from the platform. He waffles. He flounders. He smirks. He often gives the impression that he needs to consult with his staff before expressing an opinion. As a consequence, he is a significant drag on Labour’s poll ratings. In an Opinium/Observer poll in May of this year, fewer than one in three voters could see Miliband as prime minister.
The lack of a necessary skill is not a cause of shame, it is simply a call for action. Margaret Thatcher famously undertook voice training at the National Theatre to lower her vocal pitch and slow her delivery. There is nothing to stop Ed Miliband addressing the gaps in his own presentational skills. In fact, it is his responsibility as leader of a party seeking election to do so.
3 Demonstrate that they aren’t in hock to the Unions
This is the toughest challenge to Labour because, to some extent, they are.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe profoundly in the importance of representative democracy and the power of collective bargaining in the workplace. However, I do not believe that any lobbying body should have undue influence over a political party which seeks to represent the interests of the electorate as a whole.
It doesn’t help that my actual experience of membership of several unions has been dismal. They were uniformly hidebound, nostalgic and resistant to change. they were led, by-and-large, by pompous, self-serving bullies. They were also characterised by outmoded and feeble membership offers. I’m not alone in experiencing this gulf between the important principles that unions represent and the poor fist they make of putting it into practice. Admittedly, I have been self-employed since 2005, and perhaps unions have come on in leaps and bounds in the last eight years; though if they have, I failed to hear the heavenly Hosannas that greeted their miraculous transformation.
Certainly, reports of Unite’s recent ham-fisted attempts to force their chosen parliamentary candidate on the Falkirk Labour Party by rigging the ballot did not help to persuade the press, media and electorate that the unions are any less self-serving than the Tories, or any more honest in their dealings.
The most righteous, and therefore powerful, criticism of the Conservatives is that they are corrupt puppets, serving the interests of a rich elite. That criticism only carries weight if those making it are demonstrably better than that. If not, it can justifiably be dismissed as hypocrisy.
Whilst Labour has gone some considerable way towards reducing the influence of union executives – most notably with the ending of the block vote – it still has a long way to go before it will be perceived by the public to be free of undue influence by entities which have the interests of their members at heart, rather than the interests of the country.
4 Hang the payday lenders around the Tories’ neck
If there is one lesson that can be derived from The Merchant of Venice, it’s that everybody hates a moneylender. More so than ever when that moneylender demands annual percentage rates of over 5000%.
The payday lending bubo has swollen fit to burst under the Tory Libdem Alliance to the point where the sector is now worth £2.2billion. That’s £2.2billion taken primarily from the poorest and most needy in the UK. I wrote about it recently in this blog.
There is overwhelming evidence that the payday loan sharks have failed to adhere to the codes of practice they agreed in 2012: even the Consumer Minister Jo Swinson has had to acknowledge very recently that they are guilty of “widespread irresponsible lending”. Yet in the face of these massive, systematic abuses of the most desperate, the government refuses to regulate the sector.
Whether or not they have been influenced by the £593,076 donation to the Conservative party by Adrian Beecroft, Chairman of Dawn Capital, major investors in Wonga, is a matter for conjecture. Certainly their sustained attacks on the nation’s poorest could not have been better designed to send new victims into the hands of this evil trade if it had been specifically designed to do so. When reporting such stories on Twitter of late I’ve been hashtagging them #ToryWongaAlliance. You’re very welcome to do the same.
Labour should be screaming from the rafters about the abuses of the payday lending sector and the Conservatives’ reluctance to take action against them or to to set reasonable maximum interest rates. They should lay bare every association between the Tories and the payday loan sharks and they should constantly hammer home the link between the vicious cutting of welfare budgets and the rise in payday loans and defaults. It’s an albatross that stinks.