Just out of time for Labour


Roll up, roll up! It’s finally upon us and with the billboards being launched left, right and further right, the British people – you and I, friends, comrades and pets - will now be subjected to an onslaught of speeches, figures, adverts and not a lot of facts. For politics has shown up and parked its personality focused, divisional and anger-driven wagon right outside your door. It’s smarmy red-faced Cameron the Conservative versus the painfully awkward Mediocre Miliband. It’s Westminster versus Europe, it’s guessing which side of his face Russell Brand will talk out of and it’s Nigel Farage against us all. Roll up, roll up. It’s time to dust off your democracy fatigue and political hangover.

Of course, it’s 2015. And it’s the General Election – may the odds be ever in your favour.




We often look at America for our inspiration on campaigns – but this time we have to look north of the border in Canada.
Photo: Liberal Party

We need more people to start speaking honestly about politics

This year we all have a choice to make. Yes, I criticise my party plenty and I do so publically where I disagree with the direction we are being led in. But I don’t apologise for that. We have to wise up and get our heads around the idea that it’s not social media or blogs, conversations or articles about where we can do better from a nobody that’s going to damage our party; but instead the ridiculous held opinion that the public can’t see through all the performance and spin – it is the ‘off and on’ nature of politicians and party leaders that will continue to do us the most damage.

Put simply: we need more people to start speaking honestly about politics.

And if we do? We might just have some hope that people finally see politics as something for them – and see us as normal people – rather than something for us to sneer at them with.

For this was the year that if there was a pound for every time a Labour MP retweeted dear old Eoin Clarke and his graphs, or Harry from the 1800s who believes we all still live in workhouses, then the deficit would have been eliminated by February. It’s not the “wrong sort of people” who voted Labour in 1997 we should be worried about – it’s the takeover of the party by a (snobbish) class of Labour activist who is angry about everything, thinks honesty is in a dodgy composed graph like a Lib Dem from the early 2000s, and believes the BBC is part of the global lizard conspiracy against socialism. 

I don’t just think it’s Labour that is struggling to reinvent itself for the modern age. But it is Labour that can, and Labour values that are fit for this century and right for the next generation.

But this year has not been a good end to five difficult years. For a start we’ve had to endure five more years of Kay Burley despite a Sky News reshuffle and for the British people another long five years of the petty squabbling, backstabbing, childish farce that we call ‘fresh politics’ and ‘change’ has taken its toll – badly. Broken promises have eroded trust so badly that needed restoring after years of dodgy donors, dossiers and expenses. The rise of UKIP and scapegoating of immigrants. Now the looming threat of a European exit for Britain and a Eurozone exit for Greece threatens the financial crisis in Europe that has worsened – even in Germany.

Putin decided to flex his muscles and we saw an aspiring EU nation ripped in half. At home a rise in antisemitic attacks on British streets. The uncovering of an epidemic of child abuse and a conspiracy of the elite that covered it up. Then there was the Arab Spring that held much promise ended with military action in Libya all whilst Syria’s al-Assad was able to use chemical weapons to murder his own people and get away with it.

The crisis escalated, the world watched on whilst at home Labour retreated to the dangerous sidelines of isolationism on Britain’s role in the world. Iraq’s legacy is now so poisonous on foreign affairs that in the heads of Labour’s leaders that they seem to have forgotten Britain voted for the man who took us in to it, after he took us in to it. And it’s not just in Europe. In the United States; Obama finds himself now less popular than the woman he beat for the nomination in 2008, despite the fact he was sat in the room with her when they both finally found Osama Bin Laden who was shielded over the border in Pakistan – a country that makes Ukraine look positively stable. A report into torture disgraced the CIA and dug up memories of the Bush era war on terror yet the Democrats only see hope in one woman.

Clinton of course now, after the Christie scandal, the unlikely Romney resurgence and the Bush announcement, finds herself in touching distance of the role she has so desperately craved since before her husband had it. Yet ironically she has managed to lock out other more than worthy women, with more experience than a 2008 Obama, from running for, and perhaps winning, the White House.

It’s truer than ever that a woman has to have been First Lady, a senator, a presidential candidate and Secretary of State to be in contention, all whilst Barack Obama only needed two years in the Senate. Hell, Jeb Bush might just need people to forget his father and his brother (and to shed all those lucrative private sector boards he sat on) and get away with his record as Governor from years ago. Susana Martinez, a former Democrat who is the first Hispanic female governor in the country remains the Republican’s greatest undiscovered hope – but just like Condoleezza Rice and Jon Huntsman - she won’t do it.

There is no One Nation about it anymore

Back here at home we’ve turned our sole attention to the NHS in some last ditch attempt at something resembling something like an election strategy with the sole promise to not let public spending go back to levels that apparently they aren’t going back to. None the less it does raise the question – if you’re having a zero based review of public spending, how can you already set arbitrary limits on what public spending will be? Labour’s greatest bet at regaining trust on public spending and the economy now reads only as a by-line in Ed Balls’ defence over unfunded pledges.

Meanwhile the NHS is at breaking point and Burnham and Hunt are writing letters to each other, like public school boys Gove and the other Hunt, about who signed a contract to privatise a hospital that in reality was Andrew Lansley’s signature on Burnham’s prescription. Five years on we’re hiding behind restructures and debates over commissioning whilst hospital trusts struggle with PFI deals that meant building badly needed new hospitals didn’t result in a large budget deficit that we ended up with anyway. Yet now we disagree with private providers in the NHS and pledge to spend more money on a restructure by reversing a restructure that nobody wanted in the first place.

Ed agrees. Well he did in 2011. “I hate the waste, I hate the waste of billions of pounds at a time the NHS has its worst settlement, its most difficult settlement for a generation” he said, whilst he told us; “You can’t be a One Nation Prime Minister if all you do is seek to divide the country. Divide the country between north and south. Public and private. Those who can work and those who can’t work.”

But now it is North versus South. It’s you versus them. It’s good businesses versus bad businesses. It is public versus private. It is those who deserve benefits and those who don’t. It is those migrant workers who deserve to come here and those who don’t. There is no One Nation about it anymore.

We’re now treated to Cameron’s latest buzzword by talking about his global race which conjures memories of Britain always being last in the 100m – all this whilst Prime Minister in Exile Theresa May talks about shutting graduates out of the British economy. There’s the flipping fuel bills freeze that now with a falling oil price and slumping global energy market looks like it could mean Miliband has put us on a fixed rate mortgage all whilst interest rates are falling.

To put it simply; the debt is ballooning, the crises are growing, the confidence is rocking and the public’s eyes are rolling and there is one thing that is absolutely clear – we simply just don’t have any idea what we’re doing. And the answer we’ve all come up with? Localism and devolution; more responsibility to councils who are having their budgets stripped and are being worn down to stumps of old people sat in council chambers as they fall down around them. Worse still, more politicians. Worse again, regional assembly’s which nobody identifies with. The idea that if we just make more unaccountable people unaccountable for unaccountable decisions on issues they can’t solve then suddenly everyone will be happy again. It’s not a fix for broken politics.

But then here we are with this campaign – and it’s going to be about making people angry.

"Hate the Tories", hate them with us, and vote Labour! If on a scale of hate to bloody hate you hate Ed Miliband, vote Tory! If you hate growth, vote Green. If you hate Westminster, vote Nicola Sturgeon. If you hate it all, don’t vote. If you hate immigrants then, well it goes without saying. The micromessaged arguments about why you should hate someone targeted right at you in awful rage filled mail-merged emails which call you by your full name in capital letters because someone on the Obama campaign said it would be a good idea. The awful conversations on the doorstep between bussed-in activists and uninterested overtargeted voters in swing seats where “the votes matter”.

It doesn’t have to be this way

I simply do not believe that progressives win when we just run against something.

Yet both major parties are rallying towards their core supporters and polarising the electorate in an American sense with fringes on either side pulling the strings. We often look at America for our inspiration on campaigns – but this time we have to look north of the border. In Canada there is a guy who has set the political scene on fire. His Liberal party – the traditional governing party of Canada under his old man who was Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister -has gone from third to first under his year and a half of leadership.

But it’s not Justin Trudeau himself that is the most interesting lesson – in fact his personal gaffes have started to damage the party as much as buoy it – despite the fact his personal charm and style has a way of communicating with thousands, many who joined the party to vote for him. And it’s not his policies – he doesn’t have many that spell out detail but the broad strokes are largely the same as Labour in the UK.

It’s his vision and ability to talk about his country, to his country. It’s his narrative.

And it’s a convincing narrative like that about politics, Labour and a Labour Government that’s missing from centre-left politics in the UK.

Trudeau says about his opponents; “They want to be onside with people’s anger. In so doing, they have made promises that are not just cynical, but dangerous. Anger might be a good political strategy, but it makes for lousy government.”

Our message? A negative ‘Vote Labour, because otherwise it’s the Tories.’ That is now our central message and it’s been repeated every time since 2010.

We believe Lib Dem voters will ‘come home to Labour’ because they have nowhere else to turn. We only talk about what we want to stop or ban. We want to cut the deficit because we have to, not because we want to. We believe that a conspiracy laying somewhere between Murdoch and the BBC will stop us winning because people only get their thoughts from the TV and the newspaper they read. We don’t believe we can persuade people anymore and that we can only appeal to their own self interest.

When talking about 5 years of Conservative government we say;

“So in 2015 you’ll be asking am I better off now than I was five years ago?”

When talking about 10 years of Conservative government Justin says;

“Ask yourself the question; Is Canada a fairer country than it was a decade ago?” A small change, but one that fits into his vision of a better Canada for all not just you as a lone individual.

More inspiringly on immigration Trudeau says “It’s very dangerous for us to go down the road where we think about newcomers as workers rather than future Canadians. We want people who are going to grow the economy, yes, but we want them to be community builders – in a word we need people who are going to become strong citiziens.”

Us?

“The Tories target is in tatters and migration is rising not falling. The Tories have let people down on immigration. Ed Miliband has set out a new approach: controlling immigration and controlling its impacts on local communities.”

Ed Miliband also says he believed “nobody ever changed things on the basis of consensus.” On working with Conservatives for Senate (House of Lords) reform Trudeau said; “We put forward and implemented a policy that was thoughtful, responsible, whilst being bold and ambitious. We put the country ahead of partisanship and took concrete steps forward. That’s how you make change happen my friends.” Working with others to get things done is not an evil in Justin’s party.

There should be a meme for Labour’s approach to making things happen - “one does not make change by working with others.”

Convincingly Trudeau explains the current ‘crisis of capitalism’ as one that was “an original idea that everyone would share in the prosperity it creates. That hasn’t happened. If we don’t fix it, the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda. That will make us all poorer. Fiscal discipline is important but sustained growth is the only route to balance budgets over the long-term.” It’s a centre-ground message that speaks to both the working class and those who at the top who have accumulated large wealth rather than vilifying them – a warning that if we don’t share more of the prosperity of growth, then we will all lose out; because we know that a simple “right or wrong” approach to capitalism just isn’t realistic.

Trudeau manages at the same time to launch a full scale pitch for stimulus to help drive jobs and wealth back to the middle class in education, housing, green infrastructure and to balance the budget. It’s this narrative that enables his plan to sound like he wants to expand free enterprise and business rather than tame it, raise wages and lower personal (and national) debt. It’s a line borrowed from the United States that won two presidential elections; one against a free market businessman and the other against a war hero. In fact David Cameron couldn’t even win a majority opposing it five years ago – he remains on the wrong side of history but under Harman’s temporary leadership we let the ball loose and despite an attempt by Alan Johnson to get it back, it’s now firmly dead and buried.

Further still, not just on the economy, Trudeau has managed to learn an important lesson and tap into a feeling that has been eroded by lack of trust in government and the security services; a commitment to protecting individual liberty. We see it in this country too with the Tory u-turn on civil liberties since 2010 – once planning to roll back Labour’s surveillance state they are now wanting nursery school teachers to be part of it. This was meant to be Ed’s gig. Yet for Trudeau he’s pledged enhanced oversight on the security services all whilst Miliband signed it away here to May’s terrorism bill. He’s kicked suspected sex offenders out of his party, whilst we’ve kept our heads down on a national scandal.

Trudeau's pitch is a centre-ground assault on the governing Tories

Trudeau has tapped into an honesty in politics with messages on the dignity of being able to choose to end your own life and whilst acknowledging that he’s taken drugs, not just read about them, he’s open that the current criminalised approach to marijuana isn’t working – two big ideas that don’t just talk about terrorism when talking about civil liberties and speak to a sense of individual freedom long denied in the UK. Two ideas that are natural progress of centre-ground issues new Labour fought on in the early days. If only we didn’t keep calling the Tories “soft on crime” in 2010.

Trudeau is even honest enough that when talking about the tax break Canadian Prime Minister Harper gave to the rich, similarly to Cameron here, to admit that largely because of his former PM dad, his family isn’t like ordinary Canadians; “There is absolutely no reason why middle class families should be paying to give families like Mr Harper’s, or mine, a tax break.” It doesn’t scream of the hypocrisy of Labour’s anti-Tory, anti-rich approach.

The Liberal’s, Trudeau says, “as a progressive party need to ask ourselves, what is the right role for government. Too much government is an enemy of freedom and opportunity, but so too is too little.”

His pitch is a clear centre-ground assault on Stephen Harper’s dated Conservatives and the out of touch NDP that gives clear messages on where government is in the way and should let go, and where government is too absent and should get involved. By contrast, Labour’s pitch is centred only around the idea that Government has been too weak in nearly every area of the country- from the economy, to health, in creating jobs, in the media through to housing, local government, business and surveillance- it’s not a feeling the country shares.

Whilst Miliband stumbled on a speech that said; “Britain can do better than this. Britain can do better than this; we are Britain, we are better than this” about 40 times, Trudeau neatly, simply, honestly just said; “Canadians don’t just want a change of government. They want a better government.”

He speaks of Canada as a prosperous country that can and will get stronger rather than a country that needs saving from evil and makes Labour activists claim we’re living in 1930s Germany. A narrative that, here, would allow us to defend Labour’s record on the economy and on social change whilst showing we have learnt the lessons on authoritarianism and the role of government after 13 years. In fact our approach smacks of the opposite – we walk away from Labour’s record and act like 2010 were the good old days rather than inspiring people to believe in a better future for our country. We believe we can only win when we tell the story of how bad the Tories are – a patronising view of why millions of people vote and why millions of people voted Conservative in 2010; ‘You were foolish, now put it right once you’ve seen your mistake.’

And it was his message to Conservative activists, yes Conservative activists, where Trudeau really hit home.

“People in Ottawa talk about the “Conservative base” as if it is some angry mob to be feared. They’re wrong. The 5.8 million Canadians who voted Conservative aren’t your enemies. They’re your neighbours. I say this to the grassroots Conservatives out there, in communities across this country. We might not agree all the time on everything. We might disagree about a great many things, but I know we can agree on this: Negativity cannot be this country’s lifeblood. It may be the way of the Conservative Party’s of Canada current leadership, but it is not the way of those Canadians who voted Conservative.”

He may lose a close election and he’s shown he can get it wrong, just like Miliband, on foreign affairs that threatens to undermine his pitch for Canada as an open, world leader. Yet he may yet just squeak over the line – showing you can revive a party’s fortunes by speaking honestly and clearly. Trudeau has shown that it is possible to talk to the country in one coherent message about the future which is not just about bashing your opponent or making people feel worse than they already do. He energises people and makes them believe that Canada is the greatest country in the world but that it can be better without giving people unfounded expectations about what Government can do to solve their problems.

He trusts people.

He talks to people, not about them.

He makes people proud to be Canadian.

If only we could talk to Britain like that.

I think Labour may be just out of time.