Appeal to people’s better nature once you’re in government, advises TOM HARRIS. But during the campaign, appeal to their wallets
Whatever the result in today’s by-election in Inverclyde, I hope it will be the last campaign where our promise to create, defend or otherwise nurture that elusive commodity, “jobs”, is displayed quite so prominently on our literature.
That’s not to say that job creation isn’t important; there can be very few duties of government more important than the creation of an economic environment in which employers can employ, and employ in the greatest possible number.
But who is that “jobs” message really aimed at? The majority of people in Greenock, Port Glasgow and Gourock who are of working age and who want to work are already in work. What does the promise of “jobs” (with whatever prefix you prefer – “real”, “local”, well-paid” and “sustainable” are some of the current favourites) mean to those who don’t expect to be without work any time soon?
“But,” comes the response, “if you’re in work, you’re more secure if there’s less unemployment around you and the economy’s doing well.” Which is quite true, of course. And the fact is that in Inverclyde there is a very palpable (and understandable) concern that its younger generation have few employment prospects.
But in the context of a by-election – and for the purposes of this post I’m actually talking about future Scottish and UK general elections – I fear that the message of “more jobs” is seen by those already in work either, at worst, as an ambiguous soundbite or, at best, as a promise to other people, not to them.
Much has already been written on this site and elsewhere about the many and varied reasons why Labour was gubbed in the last Holyrood elections. And although it wasn’t a major factor, our appeal to voters’ altruism was a failing. Yes, I know the script: Scotland is a more left-wing country than the UK as a whole, we have a stronger sense of community, a greater spirit of common endeavour, etc. And while there is some truth in that, we are still a nation of achievers and of aspiration.
I vividly recall my late mum, at some point in the second half of the 1970s, triumphantly extolling the virtues of Labour governments by pointing out to her apathetic children that the Harris family was “never this well off under the Tories”. Perhaps that was my first unwitting introduction to what, 20 years later, would become known as “New Labour”, the understanding that even traditional working class people vote for the party that will benefit them directly (hence the reason why more trade unionists and traditional working class voters supported Thatcher than Labour in the 1980s).
The winners of the next election – at either Scottish or UK level – will have explained to individual voters – not to communities, constituencies or nations, but to individual voters and their families – how they will make them better off. How they will put more money in their pockets. How they will make it easier for them to have a nicer house, more foreign holidays, a nicer, newer car. How they will be able to afford to buy more stuff.
That’s why, in 2011, the arguments in favour of a council tax freeze won support over the fears of what its consequences might be. Voters knew what effect a freeze would have on jobs and services. But they still felt justified in voting for it because they felt that they already pay too much tax and they didn’t want to pay any more. They believed their money would be better spent by them than by councils.
Labour must, at all costs, resist the temptation to castigate voters for making a perfectly sane and rational judgment. Seventeen years after Tony Blair became leader of our party, we’re still too resistant to the obvious truth that people have every right – and every reason – to vote with their wallet and their purse.
As I campaigned in Glasgow Cathcart with my friend and former colleague, Charlie Gordon, I regularly heard him answer the question,”What will Labour do for me?” with “We’re still the only party committed to full employment.”
That is true and it is right. But it isn’t an election slogan that can take us back into government and secure us the means with which to achieve that noble ambition.
Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.