In his magnificent book, Winners: And How They Succeed, Alastair Campbell describes the three components of a winning formula. These are, in order of importance: 1. Objective. 2. Strategy. 3. Tactics. Or, for shorthand, ‘OST.’
Campbell, who knows a thing or two about winning from his three successful election campaigns at Tony Blair’s side, describes New Labour’s winning formula in 1997 as such:
Strategy: New Labour, New Britain.
Tactics: anything and everything that said we were a changed Labour Party, e.g. sticking to Tory spending limits for two years. No rise in the basic and top rate of tax. New approach to business and the unions. A pledge card setting out limited promises in five key areas.
Campbell explains that, in 2001 and 2005, the objective remained the same – to win. The strategy remained fundamentally the same, in that it was built on the foundation of ‘New Labour, New Britain’.
All that changed was that in 2001, this renewal was focussed on schools and hospitals, while in 2005 it was focussed on the economy. It was only the tactics that varied considerably each time, in order to adjust to the changing political reality.
Deriding the self-described ‘heir to Blair’, David Cameron, as a politician with a “tactic in search of a strategy”, Campbell explains that political campaigns and programmes often fall short when they over-emphasise tactics at the expensive of strategy.
“He proved good at posing for a fabulous picture in a stunning ski suit”, says Campbell of Cameron, “and promising to lead the ‘greenest government ever’; and promoting his plans for the Big Society, his way of saying he was not as right-wing as Margaret ‘no such thing as society’ Thatcher.
Both good tactics. Both memorable. But what was the strategy underpinning them? And how did it relate to what he would do in government, if he ever met his objective and won?”
According to Campbell, Cameron was operating under the mistaken belief that New Labour was merely an exercise in good communications, rather than a vision for the country rooted in Labour values and modernising policies. There is no doubt that Cameron was a solid tactician while in office. One of his closest confidants at the time referred to him as, “tactical to his fingertips.” But in nearly every policy area, Cameron deployed tactics without the necessary underpinning of strategy.
This caught up with Cameron in spectacular fashion when his decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – driven by a tactical need to outflank UKIP while at the same time appeasing the Tory right – saw his total lack of strategy and vision exposed as the British public rejected their prime minister’s advice to ‘Remain.’
All of this leads me back to the present, and to the new Labour Party. To give one example of the strategic challenge facing Labour, my party’s official policy is still to argue that UK stay in the EU. However, Labour’s frontbench has accepted the apparent inevitability of Brexit. Amidst an array of mixed messages coming from the Labour Party about what its exact position is on Brexit, it has become hard to distil Labour’s strategy for exiting the EU, let alone winning power in the UK.
We note, of course, that under Corbyn, Labour has got closer to the winning margin, as was evidenced by the surprise result at June’s general election. In both seat share and number of votes, Labour has at last begun to reverse the decline that set in from 2005-onwards. But Labour has indeed not yet ‘won’, and it still remains far from winning.
Labour’s current electoral formula has a clear objective: win power from an explicitly left-wing position. Many of the tactics are clear too. Make use of Jeremy Corbyn’s “authentic” image. Appeal to the student vote by promising to “deal” with student debt. Tell voters that Labour is anti-austerity and pro-investment. Pledge to reverse NHS privatisation. Increase taxes on the richest. Position Labour as on the side of “the many, not the few.”
But what is the strategy underpinning these tactics, many of which have undoubtedly proven effective? Is it modernisation? Doesn’t seem to be. Is it anti-austerity? That’s not a strategy – that’s an anti-strategy. Is it left-wing populism? Perhaps – but that strategy has never won an election in this country; and that includes 1945, where Labour won because it was trusted by the British people after six years of governing in coalition.
Labour has clearly assembled many of the component parts needed to devise a winning formula. This is surely why we are closer to winning than we have been in over a decade. Embedding a coherent strategy has almost certainly been hampered by the party’s civil war these past two years, among other things.
It is to be hoped, then, that Labour now takes the next step towards power by setting out a clear, positive, modernising strategy to transform the country. Retail policies and a dose of left-wing populism will not be enough.
Our objective is clear. Our tactics are improving. What is needed now is a strategy to win. Perhaps we should call it a Labour vision.