Last year’s legacy is a raft of uncertainties. Brexit will carry serious consequences, but we don’t yet know what they are, how long-lasting they will be, what form Brexit will take or even whether Brexit will happen at all. Whatever happens, it will need to go through Parliament with a slim and shrinking Conservative majority, and given their history of splits on Europe, there is no certainty that any of the necessary legislation to put Theresa May’s vision into practice (once she has one) will go through.
So it seems likely that we’ll have a general election this year. This should be excellent news – with the whole country at a crossroads and the Tories so clearly responsible, we should mop up. We should be heading for a landslide victory. Instead we are heading for oblivion.
The way we respond to this is more important than the reasons for it, as the last thing we need as a party is yet another split.
Our response so far has been a series of nationally co-ordinated campaign days. We have lots of members, many of us really enjoy campaigning and getting stuck in, so this makes perfect sense. Campaigns bring people together and the issues we have campaigned on should unite a clear majority of the public behind us, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
We kicked off with a national campaign day on “Education, Not Segregation”. This issue is still seen as a major winner by many Labour figures. Certainly most people seem to be opposed to the reintroduction of grammar schools, and the Tories have gone quiet on this issue. It should be a winner. Problem is, our campaign makes no sense. Our slogan is meaningless and not widely understood, and we’re offering nothing positive. We’re not setting the agenda, we’re mitigating it.
So next we moved on to our comfort zone of the NHS. We all agree on the NHS, it matters to all of us, and virtually everyone will have an NHS story that gives us all feels. This campaign makes more sense than the education campaign, because everyone understands it. The problem is that we’re not trusted. We can talk about how the NHS needs investment, but we’ll be asked where the money is coming from. Even if we explain exactly where it’s coming from, we won’t be believed. We have a reputation for managing public finances badly, and we never countered that in time. It’s too late now, but it means we’re not trusted. This won’t be an easy fix.
Next was rail fare increases. We have a point: our fares are now some of the highest in the world and the service is creaking to say the least. But we held this campaign at the New Year – if you’re scratching your head trying to remember when this was, that’s why. Most people were too busy trying desperately to work out how to pay the post-Christmas rent, going on fad diets they’ll never stick to, or saying goodbye to visiting loved ones. The campaign wasn’t noticed.
And now we’re doing the NHS again. It is in crisis, much like we are, but all the campaign days in the world won’t make any difference. Not the way we’re doing them.
We’re screaming into an echo chamber wondering why the hell we’re lagging so badly. The rallies, the protests, the petitions that don’t really go anywhere. We’re talking to people who already agree with us about issues they already know about. We’re gaining a perception of ourselves that just doesn’t stack up with reality. And we’re tired, so very tired.
Meanwhile, our voters are sitting there wondering what the hell we’re playing at. The ones who still support us are seeing nothing from us. We’re getting stark warnings on the doorstep and we need to sort ourselves out. We need to keep their support, above all else, or we’re completely and utterly screwed.
Campaigning is needed, but the type we’ve been doing is pointless. We’re not grabbing headlines, we’re not even gaining attention, we’re just making ourselves feel good about ourselves. We need to talk to our voters, where they are, on a personal level, about things they really care about. And to find out what they actually care about, we have to listen to what they’re telling us.
In our local parties, at local level, we know exactly how to campaign. Many of us have local issues to campaign on – hospital closures, etc. Whether we do or not, we have better community intelligence on a local level than the national party could ever hope for. In short, we know what we’re doing and need to be left to do it with support where it is needed and asked for.
What we should be doing is getting out there, wherever we judge to be best, and whenever we feel we’ll get the best results. We need to be talking to voters individually, at their homes, on the phones and on the streets. We need to be asking them what matters, and we need to be feeding that back so that we can do something about it as a party. Community intelligence when treated properly is an extremely valuable asset, so let’s do it right. Telling our voters what to think is patronising. We’re supposed to represent them, not the other way round.
And we need to let people know we’re still here, and still functioning. This is particularly important for those of us who are in power, running councils around the country. We’ve been neutered so badly by government cuts that it’s becoming too hard to show practically what Labour in power can do as we just don’t have the cash to invest. But we can at least be there for people.
People have it so very hard. So in this new year, instead of the gloss and the leaflets, Labour needs to find its purpose again, through simply listening to people and acting on what they tell us.