Goldfish jumping out of bowl

Campaigning beyond our comfort zones

Cross-posted to Open Labour, 5/2/16

A recent report by Labour’s centre-right RedShift group on “reinvigorating Labour’s brand” calls for Labour to be more “surprising” and “counterintuitive”. An unnamed advisor is quoted as saying:

“We have to marry [resilient] Labour voters with a wider group by saying something surprising. Labour has not said anything surprising for eight years. We need to do something surprising. Genuinely surprising. I have not seen a Labour politician stand up and say something counterintuitive, surprising or brave for at least eight years. We have some kind of repetitive strain injury about calling the Tories rich toffs – I don’t think it makes a difference at all.”

You could quibble with the “brave” part – taking on the Murdoch media empire seems pretty brave – but there is some truth in the rest, and it applies to movements beyond Labour too.

The report, whose authors include former minister Liam Byrne, is entitled “Brand Labour: Communicating Our Timeless Values in the Brave New World of 2020” – an oddly Kim Jong-un-esque name given RedShift’s mission to win back English seats from the Tories. Its bigger problem is that it doesn’t define what “surprising” and “counterintuitive” mean. A few paragraphs before the call for Labour to stop repeating itself, another unnamed advisor says:

“Where does the Labour brand need to be in 2020? Modern, aspirational, fair, electable, economically credible, using modern language, business friendly, properly one member one vote, more democratic, genuine believers in representative democracy, bottom up, accessible to non-politicians.”

So much for being counterintuitive; this is mostly the kind of bland, vacuous language “modernising” politicians have been coming out with for years. Elsewhere the report offers observations like: “Arguably, there are only two genuine brands in British politics, Conservative and Labour. They are the Pepsi and Coke of politics.”

All of which is likely to fuel suspicions that for many of the report’s contributors being “counterintuitive” means being more like the Tories. This would be a pity, because being more surprising and counterintuitive – and going beyond our comfort-zone issues of inequality and social injustice to create broader alliances – is exactly what the left should be doing.

Consider the call for Labour to be more “business friendly”. After the 2015 general election defeat, Ed Balls, Mary Creagh and Alan Sugar were among those that queued up to attack Labour for being too “anti-business”. But the idea that you can simply be “pro” or “anti” business – without at least considering what type of business – is meaningless. Is attacking Tesco for squeezing its suppliers pro- or anti-business? How are the interests of corporate bankers aligned with those of a workers’ coop?

This means campaigners need to undermine the “pro” vs “anti” narrative rather than take sides. One attempt to do just that was Jeremy Corbyn’s Better Business website – which had the URL corbynforbusiness.com (full disclosure: I built it). Corbyn pledged to “stand up for small businesses, independent entrepreneurs, and the growing number of enterprises that want to co-operate and innovate for the public good” rather than tax-avoiding corporations and private monopolies. His was the only site by a Labour leadership contender dedicated to business.

To be fair, some of the policies were a bit skimpy. It’s hardly a secret that Corbyn went into the leadership campaign lacking a fully worked-out programme. But shadow chancellor John McDonnell has taken up the themes with gusto, as his excellent Manchester cooperatives conference speech showed. Whether he can get a decent hearing – or any hearing – remains to be seen. Labour’s leaders have been more successful at rallying the faithful than communicating beyond leftwing bubbles, while the simplistic “pro” vs “anti” business narrative continues to dominate the airwaves – see Cathy Newman’s recent Channel 4 News interview with McDonnell.

Labour’s “New Economics” speaking tour, featuring academic experts like Mariana Mazzucato and Thomas Piketty, might help, but right now the party’s ability to influence public opinion is severely curtailed. This means we need more powerful organisations outside of Labour. Perhaps they will come out of existing think tanks that have already done good work on these issues – such as New Economics Foundation, High Pay Centre and Centre for Local Economic Strategies. Or maybe they will be forged from new alliances like Business Against TTIP. But they will need the capacity to compete with established, conservative business voices like the Institute of Directors and CBI.

More ambitiously such approaches could help crystallise Jeremy Gilbert’s vision of “a new socialist strategy: an active alliance between workers and those creative entrepreneurs who realise that their interests and those of the big financial institutions are far from being aligned”.

There are other areas where the left can go beyond its familiar concerns, for instance reclaiming the mantle of personal freedom by attacking the bureaucratic surveillance of both the state and private sector in spheres from academia to welfare to work.

We can take inspiration here from the unlikely duo of Yanis Varoufakis and Karl Rove. Republican strategist Rove argued you should attack your opponents where they are perceived as being strongest not weakest. And Varoufakis has argued that the concept of “freedom” should never have been ceded to the right in the first place: “Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies.”

Ultimately such strategies may help us win back the prized “centre ground” of English politics that RedShift is so concerned with, without simply drifting to the right or bowing at the altar of big business.

2 thoughts on “Campaigning beyond our comfort zones”

  1. Excellent post.

    One of my biggest complaints about “New Labour” and descendants is that I’ve spent a good chunk of the last decade studying the outcomes of public sector reform and (intertwined) the rise of contractors and consultants to the public sector. And it’s very hard to see all that much to celebrate when you look at the evidence. One of the things that bothers me deeply is that there is little recognition from so called “modernisers” that many of their policies just didn’t work as advertised…

  2. On the attack your opponent’s strength not weakness thing btw, I always wonder why Labour don’t have as their essential media line, repeated 10 x a day: ‘Tory incompetence, Tory chaos’. One could think of millions of examples, could even plan them out as they are likely to emerge on a media matrix. It ties in privatisation follies, Brexit problems, Boris as Foreign Minister, it’s a cracking media narrative.

    Now with Brexit chaos the goal is wider than ever, and Labour only seem to score goals when we talk about the incompetence and chaos, rather than the meanness. Instead Labour bore on a lot about Tory meanness, which yeah sure, is an important piece, but most of the population have entirely factored that in. They think the Tories are mean but competent, so vote for them anyway. It would be ‘surprising’ as you say, if Labour relentlessly concentrated on Tory incompetence. Not in a Miliband/Progress way: ‘the principle is right but the methodology is flawed’, as that only strengthens them. Just ‘here is chaos, here is more chaos, these people couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery’ way. We’ve just seen that stuff cut through with Corbyn being praised for his statement at PMQs about Brexit chaos, partly cos lots of the media are anti-Brexit too, and partly because it expresses a strong feeling in the country. Just a thought, and it doesn’t reflect policy, but I think it’s a good frame to go for, based on that Rove approach.

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