So this year’s elections are over, and lots of people are using the results as an excuse to try and shift their favoured political parties around, so I thought: “Why should I miss out?”
I don’t think the European election results are either disastrous or brilliant for Labour. You can’t look at the raw figures and say this performance (25%) isn’t good enough, because since 1999 the European elections haven’t looked anything like other British national votes. UKIP, the BNP and the Greens have all made different “breakthroughs” at Euro elections that haven’t been followed up in subsequent General Elections and, if I was a betting man, I’d be willing to bet that UKIP’s vote will fall back significantly before next year’s election.
It is, of course, possible that this election has “broken the mould”, but the probability is always against breaks with history. In 2004 UKIP got 16% and fell back to 2%, in 2009 it was 17% and fell back to 3% – some polls suggest they will hold on to more of their support next time but I’m sceptical. First because people are notoriously unreliable when they tell pollsters what they’re planning to do in the future. Second, because the European elections have become disproportionately dominated by the 10-12% of the British public who care passionately about getting the UK out of Europe and who turn out religiously while the rest of the country stays at home. And, finally and most importantly, the general election won’t be just about Europe and immigration and the far right, libertarian agenda that UKIP is predisposed towards just isn’t that popular with British people.
Meanwhile, if Labour secures something like the same (and bizarrely I’ve seen this referred to as “modest”) 10% rise in its share of the vote next year, it will be a government with a clear majority (barring a Lazarus-like rise from the Tories). In London and other cities, where the voters concentrated on whether they preferred Labour or Conservative, Labour surged ahead. That’s a positive sign. People claiming that we’re miles off track are wrong, but that’s not to say we’re guaranteed victory either. So, what does the Labour Party and Ed Miliband need to do to be the next government?
1. Don’t pander to racists and xenophobes Labour can’t win this argument and shouldn’t want to. The Tories and UKIP will always be willing to go one irrelevant, vile and undeliverable step further. Don’t get caught in a race to the bottom. Despite the news coverage, people with these views continue to represent a very small minority of the British electorate. The biggest mistake Labour could make would be to allow these issues to dominate their agenda in 2015.
2. Speak for ordinary people The best moments in Ed Miliband’s leadership have been when he’s taken a risk: challenging the banks; attacking Murdoch; controlling fuel prices; restraining gouging landlords and letting agencies; promising a better enforced and higher-rated minimum wage; building affordable homes; restricting zero hours contracts; and creating more training and job opportunities for young people. These and the other policies announced work best when they put Labour on the side of ordinary people against corporate greed and exploitative practices. Keep pounding away at that and don’t be afraid to go further. Miliband has had the greatest success when pundits have sucked their teeth and muttered “You can’t say that.”
3. Talk about fairness and inequality We have to talk about the things that people trust Labour on: the NHS, education, housing, women’s rights, jobs, wages, training and fairness. Our society is deeply divided, the rich get richer and the poor are getting left behind, and we have the evidence that this is bad economically, socially and politically. Be the voice of that evidence. As a handy side-effect talking about these issues will do most damage to both the Tories and UKIP.
4. Set the agenda Labour has always done best when it has been able to shape people’s view of the future and create optimism. Talk about tackling climate change and energy independence and investing in new technology and new industry and creating new jobs. This will have the useful side-effect of revealing what a bunch of headcases UKIP are on the things that people expect their governments to actually do.
5. Run a better campaign The attack ads against the Lib Dems weren’t just cringingly unfunny, they were also poorly conceived. People know they’ve been betrayed by the Lib Dems, what they needed to know is how Labour has changed and whether they can trust us. To throw away a relatively rare opportunity to communicate this message directly to the electorate was stupid. Similarly, Ed Miliband used the last PMQs before the election to get involved in a technical discussion about AstraZenica instead of talking about something people really care about. Identify a handful of messages and stick to them.
6. The medium is the message I like Ed Miliband. He seems dedicated and honest and clever and a bit nerdy and I value these things in a politician more than film star looks and second-hand car salesman charm. Personally, I prefer my politicians worthy but dull, people with charisma who pursue power through politics worry me. Miliband’s instincts as environment secretary were spot on and the general thrust of policy under his leadership is, I think, in the right direction. But, and there’s no point denying this, he is suffering from an image problem – one that is unlikely to be turned round before the election. I don’t want to replace Ed, but I think Labour have to be smarter about how they present him. He’s more Attlee than Blair, so develop a team around him. Use people – not necessarily just politicians or celebrities – but people that the public can connect with to help him communicate his message. Make him part of a network that demonstrates the party’s reach and his own stated aim of making the Labour Party the heart of a community network.
7. Keep your nerve Lots of people are using this moment to pressure Labour to make short-term changes. Resist them. It won’t work – it’s too late now to change trajectory – and Miliband will be less convincing spouting someone else’s ideas than he is talking about things he cares about. For better or worse we’re fixed on this path and the best thing is to stick to the material we can deliver with conviction. When the message has cut through the noise, the policy direction has been popular. Focus on hammering it home. I believe Labour can (and probably will) win in 2015 but the outcome is far from certain and not all the factors are in Labour’s control. But trying to be something we aren’t (UKIP-lite, for example) isn’t going to convince anyone. Be Labour. Just be braver and be smarter.