Like most of us, I’m still trying to think through the reasons for the political cataclysm that engulfed Labour in May – in Scotland and to a lesser extent in the rest of the UK. And one conclusion strikes me – the others, SNP, Tories, Greens, were simply better than us. They were, and are, better politicians, better at doing the business of politics. We were and are lousy at it.
George Osborne, averagely smart as he is, is a terrible Chancellor. He has floored the growing economy he inherited, failed to put the public finances back in shape and fixed into place shocking inequality. Yet all he had to do was set a simple trap in Parliament over part of the social security system and we march straight into it, arms flailing.
He has no plan for the economy, only the laughable rhetoric of ‘long-term economic plan’ (rhetoric of which I suspect we will now hear nothing more). The goal was and still is wide open for us, the public crying out for a feasible alternative to austerity, economists around the world offering that alternative, but we stand effectively silent.
Of course, in Osborne, we are confronted by a good politician who, though his actions were inconsistent and ineffective, presented the same consistent, effective message over the years – “Labour are to blame, we’re putting it right”. And that simple act of politics left us speechless.
It’s the same with the SNP, though they’ve done it differently. They’ve done very little over their nine years in government; by doing little they’ve not upset anyone, exuded competence and used that inaction to underpin the claim that ‘London’ was holding Scotland back. They’ve been consistently ineffective and yet have presented the same consistent message over even more years – “Labour let Scotland down, we’re going to break free”. And again we were speechless, except to say well, actually, we’re in favour of Scotland too, in fact, even ‘patriotic’.
Of course we’ve had times in our history when we have been rather good at politics – professionally excellent. We knew how to speak to the electorate with words they could understand and which spoke to their hopes and fears. We straddled the needs of working class and middle class voters, as Labour has done from its foundation, building bridges between their values. We were better than our opponents, we found the words to shape the hope people wanted and we won elections. Attlee won two and was in power for six years. Wilson and Blair each won three, Wilson governing for eight years in total and Blair for ten years.
Unfortunately, in Labour we are often uncomfortable with political success, especially the more recent examples of it. There is a strand in our thinking and culture which equates being good at the practice of politics with unwarranted slickness and unprincipled cleverness. It’s as if simply being ‘right’ should be enough to bring success, as if our ‘values’ by themselves were sufficient to gather support and as if by simply standing for office ‘our voters’ would turn out and do their duty by us.
And in our politicians there have been times when even the less perspicacious might discern a resistance to thinking and acting as though they intend to win, and to learning and re-learning the necessary skills in the practice of politics that might just enable them to win.
It’s time for Labour to learn to be better at politics. It’s about learning and using the skills of framing and re-framing so that we are not caught out by “Labour maxed out the credit card” and “Labour’s talking Scotland down”. It’s about learning how to make strategy for the next five and ten years out of acute understandings about our identity, our positioning and our objectives and creating the party culture and governance to stick with it. It’s about learning that shopping lists of policies for every problem under the sun don’t win elections but paying proper attention to the few big questions in voters minds do. And it’s about learning and practising the art of public narrative: finding, telling and re-telling those emotionally compelling stories of journeys made and journeys still to come which engage people with who we are and invite them to join us in what we want to do.
That learning and those skills are for our leaders, yes. But they are also of all of us too. What a long way there is to go – back to the place where winning is what we do.