Next up in our 2015 general election series is former advisor John McTernan on what Labour needs to do to win next year.
There is no real secret to winning elections. Be united, have popular ideas and connect to the public. As Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘It’s not easy, but it is simple.’
Against the odds, Ed Miliband has achieved the first, and done it effortlessly. After a lengthy and divisive leadership campaign – which he won with the narrowest of victories – one might have expected the Labour Party to revert to form and divided against itself. But no, unity has been not just the word but the action. There have, of course, been bouts of briefing. However, they have normally been in the dog days of summer when MPs suffering relevance deprivation find common cause with journalists who have acres of white paper to fill. This unity even extends to the unions who, together with activists, endorsed a substantial shift in favour of austerity at the recent national Policy forum.
The second is nearly there too. Great policies have edge, crunch and lift. Edge – to cut through to the public, just as the promise to freeze energy prices did. Crunch – a specificity that allows people to easily discuss the policies and their impact – as with the proposal for longer term leases to give tenants, particularly families, more security. Lift – a sense of inspiration and transformation, in the way that a Living Wage is a proposal that the fifth biggest economy in the world shouldn’t have to subsidise so many people’s wages.
There is still a need to ‘retail’ Labour policies. There’s no shortage of those policies, but apart from the ‘Cost of Living Contract’ there don’t seem to be many easy to understand versions of what Labour plans to do. Perhaps this summer could be usefully spent by Shadow Ministers turning the barrage of reports the Labour Party has received, most recently from the ippr and Lord Adonis, into marketable form and sound-bites.
The final necessary component is connection. This comes in many forms. The most simple expression is ‘On my side/Out of touch’. Oppositions want to be the former, while painting the government as the latter. This is where the economic debate needs to be framed by Miliband and Balls. Voters need to enter the polling stations next year with one proposition in their minds. Cameron and Osborne want it to be: ‘Labour wrecked the economy. It’s on the mend. Don’t risk it.’ For Labour it needs to be: ‘Do you feel better off today than you did 5 years ago.’ Every politician knows how ungrateful voters are even when they have been given lots of goodies. With living standards still lower than they were when the Coalition came to office in 2010 it is very unlikely that the electorate will be in a forgiving mood. But it’s not enough. Progressive parties need to own ‘future’ and ‘fairness’. That needs a confidence about how Britain can be changed for the better. Miliband’s conference speech – his last big pre-election showcase – needs to persuade people that there is nothing wrong with Britain that a change of government wouldn’t fix. Hope needs to beat fear.
John McTernan was an advisor to Tony Blair and Director of Communications to Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gilliard.