It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, argues Richard Darlington

After the Tory defeat in the 2005 general election, Michael Ashcroft published an analysis called ‘Smell the coffee: a wake up call for the Conservative party’. In the introduction he argued that “the Conservative party’s problem is its brand…the brand problem means that the most robust, coherent, principled and attractive Conservative policies will have no impact on the voters”.

Labour needs to ‘smell the coffee’ now and not wait for three election defeats. New polling shows the Labour party’s brand is in toxic territory. Ashcroft realised that policy is nothing without presentation and presentation is nothing without policy. Labour now has a problem with both.

Demos commissioned YouGov to undertake a 45,000 respondent poll on social attitudes and perceptions of the main political parties to understand the election outcome.

The most widely held perceptions of the Labour party held by people who voted Labour in 2005 but not in 2010 were that the party is ‘weak’ (73%), rather than strong (16%) and ‘divided’ (72%), rather than united (19%). While a change of leader might shift perceptions of ‘weakness’ and ‘division’, the poll actually shows that Gordon Brown had a far better rating for being seen as ‘strong’ compared with the party. It will be crucial that all four of the unsuccessful leadership candidates – and their supporters – unite behind the new leader. Any refusals to serve will be catastrophic for the party.

Labour’s biggest problem is being seen as ‘out of touch’, which will take more than a change of leader to address. Two thirds (66%) of voters that Labour lost at the last election said the party was ‘out of touch’ and more than half (58%) said the party represents ‘the past’ rather than the future. Only 67% of all Labour voters thought Labour was ‘in touch’ while 85% of Tory voters saw the Conservatives as ‘in touch’. One in four Labour voters actually put their cross in the box while believing Labour was ‘out of touch’.

Labour campaigned under the slogan ‘a future fair for all’ but polling evidence shows that Labour’s campaign only half worked: Labour did manage to deny the Tories the political territory of ‘fairness’ but Labour failed to claim ‘the future’.

Labour’s new leader is going to need to rebrand the party to reinforce their new policy agenda and signal a clean break from the past. The time for renewal is over and Labour now needs major repositioning based on new policy. That doesn’t mean Labour should ditch the party’s values but Labour will need to dump some old policies to show they have changed. Most of all, Labour’s new leader needs to show they have listened to disaffected voters, not just party members.

The weekend after the 2005 general election, Tory advertising guru and party co-chairman Lord Saatchi wrote that “mere anger at the problems of the world we live in is not enough to convince the voters that the Conservative Party is fit to solve them”.

For Labour, opposition to the unfairness of the budget and of the cuts to come is politically necessary but not politically sufficient. Labour will not get elected again on the determination of its opposition but the credibility of its alternative. Being credible on deficit reduction is now a hygiene factor for Labour’s next leader.

The month between being elected on Saturday 25th September and the Comprehensive Spending Review on Wednesday 20th October will define Labour’s new leader and could cement the negative views of voters that Labour lost.

When Teresa May admitted that the Tories were seen as ‘the nasty party’ she was ridiculed. Now she is the home secretary. Labour‘s new leader needs to face up quickly to the fact that Labour’s brand is broken and that the party are seen as ‘out of touch’ and represent the past. Labour needs to ‘smell the coffee’.

Richard Darlington is Head of the Open Left project at Demos.

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5 Responses to “It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, argues Richard Darlington”

  1. paul barker says:

    You need to add Labours own debt to that list, as long as that £10 Million + hangs over your heads there is a danger of it all going horribly wrong.
    For the rest, as long as Labour remain tied to the Unions, a long, slow decline is the best you can hope for. Unions are defensive organisations, always looking back, you need a divorce.

  2. SJMason says:

    Not sure we needed a poll to tell us that. Trouble is, I guess, there probably won’t be much agreement on how to fix the ‘broken brand’ (how shrivelled and New Labour-y a phrase that is, by the way). Personally I’d like to see democratic socialism for workers and the public in public services as opposed to marketisation mixed with statism, democratising of the economy generally (Hutton’s ‘stakeholder society’ which Blair ditched as swiftly as he took it up, once in power). For me that’s nothing to do with brand – that’s just Labour re-imagining its original purpose for a new era. I’m sure plenty of people would disagree though.

  3. This is a non-story. A partly that lost badly is not well-regarded by the electorate? Who’d have thought? And why on earth would people consider the Labour Party weak when it failed to remove Brown despite believing him to be a liability? I can’t think of a single reason, if we exclude the one I’ve just given.

    What’s more, these either/or choices are meaningless. Do the out of touch numbers suggest Labour needs to change? Yes. How? It gives us no information as to whether the problem is of ideology of actions, whether we need to move left or right or whether we need to hold steady but just rebrand slightly.

    All it does is let the same old gatekeepers at Open Left make their argument without having to produce any actual evidence that their solution would be any better.

  4. Adam says:

    The Demos analysis is nonsense simply because it’s already out of date: it’s about why people voted the way they did 12 weeks ago, not how they’re feeling about Labour now, let alone what they’ll think at the end of this term.

    To compare Labour’s situation now with the Conservatives in 1997 is absurd: the two are not comparable. Labour’s brand was incredibly damaged by the dour, depressing and weak leadership of Gordon Brown and the fact that many voters in 2010 had little recollection or experience of what Conservative government meant: time for a change after 13 years was the biggest single problem Labour was up against and that problem was disposed of the moment a new government was formed.

    The Tories had exactly the same problem in 1992 – they happened to hang on but probably wish they had lost given the debacle Major made of governance.

    To talk about any policy being right or wrong again falls into this perception trap: because Labour lost the deficit argument in May (even though we were right, we have to accept we didn’t win the argument) does not mean people will not regard it very differently at the tail end of savage Tory cuts that affect them directly.

    Finally, let’s put the weakness of this argument in context. The Tory brand in 1997 was toxic. It had not been repaired fully in 2010 or else the Tories would have won a clear majority (Ashcroft’s analysis of 2010). The reason the Tories are back had less to do with brand and more to do with pendulum. The pendulum will swing back. The choice in the leadership election is how quickly we as a party want it to swing back – and whether we help or hinder it in so doing.

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