Brand Anew

By Samuel Fawcett / @SamFawcett92

If you were anything like me when you first became interested in politics, you were enraptured by high concepts of democracy, redistribution and universalism. You believed that what mattered was the strength of rational argument and that, if only people saw the facts, they would come over to your side. What’s more, if, again like me, you grew up under New Labour and saw yourself as being on the Left, you despaired of ‘spin’, ‘machine politics’ and even compromise. When I joined Labour in 2013, I questioned why the party couldn’t simply state the facts about welfare and taxation rather than having to try and work within and around a Tory narrative. It is only with the crushing events of 2015 that I have begun to grasp the true importance of ‘message’.

Ideas such as brand, message discipline and media management have somewhat fallen out of vogue within the broader Left, having all become lumped together under the umbrella term of ‘spin’. In their place, free votes and speaking your mind regardless of the electorate’s views are lauded, encapsulated by ‘straight talking, honest politics’. Even if we leave aside the fact that Shadow Cabinet ministers who have actually spoken their mind and voted freely have been briefed against and/or demoted, the above strategy is still actually rather dire. Why? Because it is not ideas that win elections, but narratives.

Writing the above sentence makes me feel rather queasy, and I can feel my 20-year-old self regarding me with horror, but the Left simply cannot afford to run away from this truth. No matter how much we may not want it to be so, the facts are staring us in the face. Look at the 2015 election. The Conservatives did not offer a single big idea that had people talking. There were promises to eliminate the deficit, save the NHS and control immigration, but there was very little specific policy detail on how this would be achieved. In contrast, Labour entered the election with policy detail galore. A 10% rate of tax for low-earners, restoring the top rate to 50%, building 200,000 new homes a year, a Mansion Tax to fund the NHS – the list goes on. However, as we know all too well, despite these policies polling highly, the public voted for the Conservative manifesto, not Labour’s.

Obviously the reasons for this are manifold and cannot be boiled down to one, but it cannot be denied that narrative played a key role. The Tories did not anchor their manifesto in policy pledges, but they knew their strengths and Labour’s weaknesses, and exploited both to great effect. ‘Strong Leadership. A clear economic plan. A brighter, more secure future’, proclaimed their manifesto. They traded on a narrative of strength, responsibility and, crucially, security, with their talk of a ‘long-term economic plan’ and by playing on Cameron’s restrained, sensible image. They counterpointed this perfectly by branding Labour irresponsible spendthrifts with a leader who looked odd and wasn’t strong or credible.

Labour, in contrast, had all the policy detail but had not been able to craft a satisfactory message of what we stood for or even who we were, the previous five years too often defined by compromises and fudges for the sake of preserving unity. Consequently, many of the public – and even party activists – did not know what Labour stood for, and did not regard Ed Miliband as strong. Given these circumstances, it was far too easy for the Conservatives to step in and paint their own image of Labour, and when the SNP factor came into play they were able to use the idea both of Ed being weak and of no one knowing what the party stood for to sow the fear that he would be walked over by Nicola Sturgeon and succumb to her ‘radical’ agenda.

In 2016, the Tories’ hand is yet stronger. Not only do they still have their image of being the party of security and stability, they have an opposition that they can paint as dangerous, unpatriotic and economically unsound. Furthermore, many of us within the party not only do not see this an issue, but almost regard it as signifying our purity. Too often, when the electorate disagree, we condemn them as selfish, racist, even undeserving of ‘salvation’. Even worse, the views we deem as unsavoury frequently come from working-class voters, the very people who are meant to be our core.

Like it or not, we cannot hide from the fact that we are living in an age that is increasingly consumerist; one in which people ‘purchase’ everything based on how good they feel the brand to be. This is as true of politics as it is of energy drinks. The majority of the electorate do not think of themselves as tribally Left or Right, and more importantly they don’t care. Tribal allegiances are dying, and society is becoming increasingly fragmented into interest groups. Bluntly, Labour simply cannot win off the back of a coalition of council house tenants, BME groups, students and socially concerned middle-class voters. To win, we have to embrace anew the concepts of security, patriotism and ambition. We can be sure that the ideas of 1983 will not deliver this, but neither will those of 1997. Time has moved on, and it needs all sides of the party to contribute to creating a message that is recognisably Labour while still incorporating the above. The task will not be easy, but the alternative is electoral oblivion. The stakes could not be higher

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