“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” Buffet’s saying has been one which many in finance have had cause to ponder in recent years. Turned round, it applies to political parties: “a toxic reputation takes 5 minutes to develop, 20 years to shake off.” Consider how long it’s taken the Tories to get past (if they have) the “nasty party” tag. From its development in the 1980s, it was 18 years before the Tories won a majority. Labour’s infiltration by Militant started in the mid-1970s. 1985: Kinnock’s Conference speech; 1997: Blair’s New Dawn.
Those bad reputations are used by opponents long past their sell-by date: the Tories made 18 glorious summers of Labour’s Winter of Discontent. 29 years after she resigned, Thatcher is still Labour’s convenient bogey-woman. After defeat, the longer a party postpones the hard thinking about why it lost and what needs to change, the longer and harder it will be to regain power. 8 years, 3 leaders for the Tories before they finally understood that they could no longer blame the voters for falling for Blair. He was not a Pied Piper; the voters were not stupid children. They looked at the Tories; they disliked what they saw.
With the election barely over, Labour is already embracing comforting delusions rather than taking a long cool hard look at itself, warts and all.
Change the leader and all will be well
Leadership is critical, yes, but a leader is not simply the person taking the centre spot in group photos. They set the tone, values and direction of the party. A party and its leader are always, whether explicitly or implicitly, telling voters the following:
- This is who we are (who we seek to represent).
- This is what we do (how we fight for you).
- This is how we do it (our values).
- This is where we are going (the sort of country we want).
- This is how we’re going to get there (the practical steps we’ll take).
Changing the leader but keeping the rest unchanged/unchallenged is not enough. Labour voters rejected Corbyn and what he stood for because the latter was an essential part of his leadership and why it was rejected. Putting a pretty blonde in his place – without more – will not address voters’ concerns. For a party fond of ideology, Labour has in recent times seemed obsessed to the point of madness with personalities: any criticism seen as a personal attack on the leader, who must be protected at all costs, even if that meant closing one’s eyes and ears to what was happening.
Striking that in his speech after winning his constituency, Corbyn first launched into an attack on those journalists who tried to speak to him outside his home. His inconvenience was apparently of more importance than MPs losing their jobs or apologising for what had happened on his watch.
Wannabe leaders might usefully think how they would answer the above questions. Heretical as this may seem, the answers are not simply going to be found in their past, their jobs or their genetic inheritance.
The policies were popular
Would it be bad taste to say that after the worst defeat in 84 years, a defeat in which it went backwards in 98% of seats contested, it takes industrial quantities of chutzpah to claim this as evidence of popularity? Yes, it would. But it is entirely accurate.
Yes – individual policies are popular; that does not make the entire package so. Nor is popularity the only measure. Credibility as to execution and cost and whether these are the voters’ most important priorities matter too. Did the manifesto consist of (somewhat nostalgic) policies which mattered to the party (and its union backers) – nationalisation / reversing trade union legislation – rather than the voters it was seeking to attract?
Is a lack of free broadband what has been keeping voters up at night? When asking questions, the single most important thing to do is to really listen to the answers. Has Labour stopped listening because it has taken voters for granted? Or has it only been listening to those saying what it wants to hear?
It was all about Brexit
No it wasn’t. Not least because Labour was quite successful in talking about other issues, the NHS, for instance, which became by the end of the campaign as important as Brexit. An end to austerity was promised: but there was no analysis of where austerity had happened, how it was going to be addressed and paid for. The money was apparently going to come from a few wicked tax-avoiding billionaires and other rich people. In reality, many of the cuts have been to local government budgets affecting areas like social care, topics Labour spoke little about.
It also finally admitted that pretty much everyone would have to pay more tax but got no credit for this admission, dragged out of it as from a recalcitrant witness. It then managed to find £58 billion from thin air to give to a small group of voters. (“For the few, paid for by the many“, as the manifesto did not say.) Curious that a party claiming to care about the poor thinks that those who have to watch every penny don’t care how governments finance their promises.
All the fault of the press
A well-worn delusion this. Politicians whining about the media are like sailors complaining about the sea, as someone once said. Yes – much of the MSM is not enamoured of Labour. Yes – newspaper owners tend to be very rich. So what? This is the age of social media, when newspaper circulation and readership is on the decline, when there are myriad ways of communicating ideas and plans. Self-pitying moans about smears, being attacked, being asked questions and challenged are the reactions of narcissistic cry-babies.
Being able to explain clearly and crisply what you are about; being able and willing to debate and argue and persuade (not simply assert) is basic political tradecraft. (The sheer inability of many quite experienced politicians to answer even a vaguely difficult question is astonishing. They would not survive even one mealtime in our household. What do they do all day?)
Closely allied to this is the belief that voters have been misled, whether by the press or by other parties, as if voters are too stupid to think for themselves. It does not take a degree to know when someone is sneering at or patronising you. For all the talk about wanting to help “their” voters, some Labour politicians give the impression that they do not much like the actual people they want to represent, that they are simply there to be the object of the politician’s virtue. (Those taking practical steps to help – Stella Creasy, for instance, over loan sharks – have been sidelined.)
A new leader won’t have Corbyn’s baggage
Well, that’s a low bar. But this won’t be enough, now. First, there is the EHRC report to get past. Second, there will need to be good answers as to why blind eyes were turned. Most important, getting rid of the mindset, the fertile swamp in which the Manichaean, conspiracist, “virtuous us” vs “wicked them“, anti-Semitic virus grew and flourished will need lots of hard work, not just speeches. It will need disciplinaries and expulsions. It will need the leader to reset the party’s moral compass, to teach its membership what is right – and wrong – and demonstrate it in all they do. It will need to be visible, focused, determined and prolonged. It will take a lot of the leader’s energy. It will be painful. And oh so necessary.
The one thing which all good leaders have is courage. Thatcher had it; so did Kinnock. Blair – at times. Cameron, too – over gay marriage. The courage to think the unthinkable; to apologise when necessary; to listen with humility when being given a difficult message; to ask tough questions; to speak hard truths – to oneself, to the party (Kinnock: “I’m telling you and you’ll listen” is all too pertinent today), to voters. It is not the same as rage and protest, however eloquently done.
Rather than tell itself comforting stories, Labour needs to have the courage to look at itself honestly if it wants to choose its next leader wisely.