John McTernan: For Labour hope needs to beat fear

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.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.

  • mickfealty


    I agree with this…

    Progressive parties need to own ‘future’ and ‘fairness’. That needs a confidence about how Britain can be changed for the better.

    Changed for the better, perhaps. But as Burke once memorably noted also perhaps to avoid the likelihood of things getting considerably worse.

    I wonder if people are just not seeing the connection between the remedies Labour offers and the problems they feel they are facing from day to day.

    Blair captured some of these with Tough on Crime, and Tough on the Causes of Crime, and of course education, education, education.

    The lag between the UK’s GDP per capita and overall GDP relates to dropping productivity, but also the fact there’s more people for the same money to go round.

    Any policy offering needs to try square the circle between the obvious benefits to the nation and the current ongoing privations of the people of the parish. This is a real weakness, and not just for Labour, but all prospective parties of government.

    One problem may be that Miliband’s policy initiatives just aren’t large enough to connect with the public mind. They feel like tinkering, in a similar way that Cameron’s been a bit of tinkerer.

    A personal bugbear of mine is housing, which is an area which someone needs to grab by the scruff of the neck and do something ambitious with. That’s probably beyond the reach of any individual policy initiative.

    Another is the problem of a growing democratic deficit. The casual ripping of public services away from County Councils in England (and Academy schools is only the latest tranche), further decreases the importance of local political power.

    Labour did well in 2010, in part because it’s GOTV operation was far better than almost every other party. On a massive drop in percentage it limited the damage to seats very effectively.

    In effect though that’s just a technocratic fix. I don’t sense an urgent appetite for power, which is what might make voters think twice about putting Cameron back in.

    As Ashcroft pointed out to Tories here last week, the choice has to matter. I’m struggling to believe it does. I’m not really certain what we’d be missing if Ed didn’t make it next year.

  • dougthedug

    Of course John, your General Election chances are going to depend to some extent on how successful you are along with your close allies the Tories in stopping Scottish independence.

    Shared directorships between Labour and the Tories on the Better Together 2012 company, Labour fronting for Tory Money in Better Together, shared platforms, events and photo shoots all round Scotland with Darling, Davidson, Rennie and Lamont. Labour, Tory, Lib-Dem and Labour.

    How come you’re not such good friends in England?

  • mickfealty

    You sure you’re not just ‘baiting’ the witness there Doug? I thought the seriousness of the analysis deserves a serious (ie, on topic) response…

    Not quite this approach, but not far off it…

  • dougthedug

    No. John McTernan is framing General Election in 2015 as a fight between Labour and the Conservatives when for those of us in Scotland they are close allies who are quite literally sharing the same platforms and photo-calls.

    It shows that the idea of Labour and Conservative as opposites is flawed when looked at from a Scottish perspective. Labour are on the one hand claiming that the Tories have made Britain worse while on the other hand they are fighting with the Tories to ensure that Scotland will continue to endure long periods of Tory rule.

    In Scotland Labour are going to have a problem until the referendum campaign is over about how to tell Scots that the Tory party they are allied with is in fact not fit to run the country while standing on the same platforms and sharing control of the same campaigning organisation as that Tory party while telling Scots that they are better off under Westminster even if it’s Tory.

  • mickfealty

    It does show the way the kingdom, as it remains, is drifting into different political games. The point I made below about democratic deficits applies less to Scotland and Wales than it does to vast tracts of England where the only form of democratic accountability is Westminster/Whitehall.

    In Ireland we’re quite used to parliamentary rivals coalescing (or not) their interests in extra-parliamentary referendums (which may be one reason why they should be used sparingly).

    You are right to the extent that Labour Tory enmity is barely to be seen in Scotland (it’s only of secondary concern in Northern Ireland where either party has little or no representation). On the other hand, it’s the only show in town in England and Wales.

    And, until such times as Murdo’s proposals for a federal parliament takes hold that’s the way it is, and likely to remain until Scotland makes up its mind to leave.

  • dougthedug

    Mick, you’ve probably already seen my reply to Murdo’s piece on Slugger and I hope you’re referring to Murdo’s proposals in the sense of, “until such times as hell freezes over”, because that’s got the same chance as federalism being implemented in the UK.

    John McTernan’s piece uses the final line, “Hope needs to beat fear”, which is a worthy aim but within Scotland the Labour party has used fear as its main and only weapon against the Yes campaign and within Scotland to label Labour as “Progressive” would be the misnomer of the year.

    To match the campaign styles of the Yes and No camps In the Scottish referendum the title would have to be turned into, “For Labour fear needs to beat hope”.

    The disconnect between what’s happening in Scotland and the blandly uplifting piece from John here is quite stark.

  • Michael Henry

    Ed Miliband will win his seat next year but I don’t think he will get the keys to number ten- I could be wrong but I would have thought that a lot of Labours grass- roots would be supporting the Palestinian people at the moment but for obvious reasons Ed is not to vocal on that issue -( has there ever been a party leader from the big two in Britain who has lost their seat at Westminster before )-