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.

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16 thoughts on “Delete ‘jobs’, insert ‘money’

  1. It’s true that self-interest plays a large part in swaying people’s votes, even the votes of those who would prefer to vote otherwise. The fact is that if you can’t afford to pay your council tax, the council tax freeze looks great, and any problems which it might create look much further away and less important than the pile of bills coming through the door.

    My grandad should have been a core Labour voter, back in the day, but chose to vote Tory (!!!), and probably contributed to their 1955 majority, simply because the Tories were the only people who had ever increased his unemployment benefit (probably sometime in the thirties, lol, but he never switched back). The fact that they also created mass unemployment, almost without fail, also made him feel less ashamed to collect his benefits, so he was actually voting, deliberately, for [b]higher unemployment[/b] out of pure self-interest.

    Then again, he was a bit mental.

    “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.” – Tom Harris

    One of New Labour’s problems, I feel, is that it places these two traits in opposition to one another – as if being left-wing and community-minded was somehow a barrier to individual aspiration and achievement. It sounds Thatcherite, and doesn’t make practical sense. Can’t a whole community be aspirational? Can’t a common endeavour lead to great achievements for everyone involved? If not, why join a political party? Tony Benn is pretty left-wing, and he’s got a nice house.

  2. A very niave article Tom. When I was speaking to people on the doors in Inverclyde, even those had jobs or who were retired, raised the issue with me. It isn’t about them having jobs- it is about their kids, their grandkids and it is about a recognition that brining jobs to Inverclyde will boost their area. I am really surprised that you don’t get that Tom. And we wonder why people say our MPs and MSPs are out of touch….

  3. “The majority of people in Greenock, Port Glasgow and Gourock who are of working age and who want to work are already in work.”

    So everyone who isn’t in work is just a slacker eh?

    Well seeing you waited till polling day to favour us with this gem.

    I take it you did not actually spend much time talking to people in Inverclyde? There is a reason why it was the top issue for both parties in this particular by-election and that reason is because it was the top issue for voters.

  4. Tom

    No job no money no nicer house, no more foreign holidays, no nicer, newer car. and How they will be able to afford to buy more stuff.
    Using your theory of Scottish self interest Attlee would of failed to construct the Welfare state or the nhs

    Most and more will in the ensuing decades be in a variety of differing jobs with differing level of pay and likely in between some time on the dole(could be a long time) the days were you spent all your working life in one job is long gone.

    So protecting jobs is no bad thing still you could say ‘we are the party committed to unemployment’ and see how you go.

    ‘people have every right – and every reason – to vote with their wallet and their purse.’

    Yes well history shows us when the ordinary working person(as opposed to the seriously rich MPs and suchlike) vote that way they soon end up with very thin wallets and purses full of moths.

    If Tom you sincerely wish for the people to pay very low taxes or no taxes at all give them the contact details for the people who arrange Cameron and Osbornes finances.

  5. I often agree with you more often than i would think possibly, this is not one of those cases. In fact, i’d go as far to say it’s a good job your not in charge of the campaign Tom, if you don’t know that jobs – or lack- of is a massive issues for people in that area. You can’t just dismiss the fact that for every vacancy, more than 50 people in Inverclyde are chasing that vacancy. Employment is a tangible illustration of being in touch on the economy- and we all know its “the economy stupid”. I notice the SNP campaign literature is covered in jobs, jobs, jobs (and how out of touch are the SNP in the eyes of voters these days Tom?). Sure, the SNP maybe stole their by election message from us as their campaign does seem to be playing catch up all the time, but it is the only issue in town. If you stand in an election and you don’t focus on the most important issue people raise, then that’s what being out of touch means. Grannies & parents care about the future job prospects of their youth & their area, the more in employment the less we have to spend on benefits. 

    1. Stephen, as I said in the article, “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.”

      I also wrote: “the fact is that in Inverclyde there is a very palpable (and understandable) concern that its younger generation have few employment prospects.”

      More importantly, although the article was prompted by the by-election, I do point out that I’m not talking about Inverclyde and the by-election so much as future Scottish and general elections.

    2. Stephen, as I said in the article, “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.”

      I also wrote: “the fact is that in Inverclyde there is a very palpable (and understandable) concern that its younger generation have few employment prospects.”

      More importantly, although the article was prompted by the by-election, I do point out that I’m not talking about Inverclyde and the by-election so much as future Scottish and general elections.

  6. Two points.

    1) The council tax freeze possibly won support for the reasons outlined above, but maybe they won support because people see their council taxes being wasted by profligate councils who spend money on “pet projects” and on extortionate wage rises for heads of service and for key councillors. Renfrewshire Council (an SNP/Lib dem led council) is as guilty of this as Glasgow City Council (a Labour run one).

    2) There are bits that are a bit vulgar (I think we Scots can be a bit snobbish about being “well off” – I think we get righteous about percieved comfort, but i think the phrase (that I think maybe Mandleson came away with) about Labour not getting “Aspiration” is maybe the point of your piece. If thats the case, then jobs surely is as big a part of the equation as money.

    1. On the council tax, surely the answer to council tax payers fed up with their increases in CT going on “pet projects” and wage rises is to vote out those politicians responsible (whether they are Labour, SNP or Lib dem).

      Its called local accountability.

      Instead we have a situation where local councillors are not accountable to their electorate for what goes on, because they all pay the same amount each year regardless of what happens. A pet project can still go ahead, wage rises can still be made to certain personell (though not the ones at the bottom!) – but the tax payers dont feel the effect as their CT doesnt go up.

  7. This is a really bizarre article. Jobs are very very important to people – they don’t want to lose their jobs, they want their children to be able to find a job & they do not want unemployment to be a price worth paying to reduce the deficit, which seems to be the overall direction the Tories are taking.

    I would say worry about losing your job & worry about your kids not being able to find a job is one of the most important things people will consider when they vote.

    What they want is a government that will intervene in the economy to keep it going & ensure there is employment, but one that will do it competently.

    People will also be selfish & vote for a Council Tax freeze – but they will do so in the knowledge that the government won’t allow people to get made compulsory redundant as a result of that. And they haven’t been.

  8. If Labour is to win again in Scotland it has to learn what it was that made New Labour successful. Yes 10% unemployment is a horrible state of affairs and we should do everything possible to help those people but what about the other 90%. You can’t win an election without appealling to voters outside of your base. Salmond gets this. Why can’t we? So I guess what I am saying is I agree with Tom.

  9. ”What will Labour do for me?” & “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”

    May I add my observation to the above quotes? As well as answering the question on what will you do for me/Scotland/environment/economy etc etc Your response has to be seen to be achievable. Espousing a commitment, such as full employment, while laudable, it has never been achived in the 50 odd years of Labour domination of Scotland. Nor in the UK. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    So Tom, you need to be seen to be “earning” my vote. And I think this will be very hard as the party is too centralist and currently lacking in the “vision” thing.

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish” Proverbs 29:18, and I’m not a fully paid up member of that particular club either!

  10. The thinking seems a little crooked to me. You can appeal to those who want more jobs as well as those who are already in secure work – the two are not in competition with each other. It’s especially important to appeal to both when there are huge job losses coming.

  11. Mr Harris seems to be advocating bait & switch tactics – advertise one thing, deliver another?

    1. No – we should emphasise some parts of our programme during the campaign, then deliver it all in government.

      1. I actually agree with your argument, I wonder though if the culture change required isn’t just too much for Scottish Labour to embrace. Scottish Labour badly needs a Clause IV moment but is culturally too risk averse.

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