Our new leader will need to ‘fess up, stop spinning and start inspiring, says Sally Bercow

At a drinks party recently, I got chatting to someone who said that if Labour is to win the next election, it needs ‘rebranding’. This chap did something in marketing, so he would say that wouldn’t he. Nevertheless, it was rather depressing to hear, and in my view it is wrong to boot. Our party is not a packet of sweets or a jar of coffee awaiting new packaging; in fact that is precisely where the last Labour government went wrong – by substituting idealism and vision with spin. Our new leader must break decisively from the past; he (for it will be a he) cannot simply change the advertising agency (although he should definitely look at that), rehash what’s gone before and embark on a rebranding exercise.

Encouragingly, all five Labour leader candidates seem to appreciate this – at the moment. However, the persuasiveness of the spin doctors, advisers and pollsters that will flock around our newly elected leader should not be underestimated. They will bandy about empty phrases like ‘progressive centre left’ whilst arguing that Britain is fundamentally a deeply conservative country and so Labour dare not move more than a milimetre to the left of the Coalition. As a result, the temptation will be to tinker at the edges and carry on much as before, banking largely on the Con-Libs becoming increasingly unpopular. This will not wash. It does not, however, mean lurching drastically to the left on every issue. What it does mean is fashioning a new approach based on three concepts.

First, if Labour is to start to regain the public’s trust we have to be brutally honest about where we got it wrong and (dare I say it) where the coalition might be right. ‘Fessing up to a few oversights; even ones as significant as being too soft on the bankers and allowing the state to become too controlling, will not cut it. Our new leader should own up lock, stock and barrel – even though they might find it a bit awkward because they sat in cabinet at the time. With a bit of luck, the new leader will admit to Labour’s mistakes in areas including civil liberties, ID cards, prisons, housing (or more accurately the desperate lack of it) and the digital economy, then duly consign those policies to the scrapheap.

Simultaneously, and this does not come naturally to the more tribal amongst us, we will earn the public’s respect if we stop trying to score points for the sake of it and actually admit it if the Coalition has a case. It is simply not credible for the new leader to roundly condemn every single one of the coalition’s policies and planned cuts.

Second, on the back of such unflinching honesty, our new leader can go into battle. He must defend the last Labour government, who left a better, fairer, more tolerant country with transformed public services and an economy saved from depression. He must expose the chronic iniquity and manic ideology of the coalition’s policies and seek to thwart or temper them. And, most importantly of all, he must set out a clear, attractive and viable alternative.

Third, beyond adopting this new honest approach, Labour needs to develop a new programme. This should be done not by pandering to media prejudice, by shifting according to fluctuating opinion polls or by becoming overly cautious. Instead, we must craft an inspiring credo, driven by progressive Labour values, which has the potential to improve the lives of the mainstream majority in a way and on a scale that this right-wing government cannot imagine, let alone deliver.

It is time to rediscover our principles, our values and our idealism. An unerring focus on social justice – fighting for a fairer, more equal Britain – coupled with economic dynamism should be at the heart of our new programme. This focus on social justice will mean taxing the rich more, reducing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, creating more affordable housing, reducing the ugly disparities in educational achievement and thereby paving the way for a more socially mobile Britain.

Economic dynamism will mean an explanation of how we would reduce the deficit (by credible spending cuts and bold, but fair, tax rises) and over what timescale. In addition, we must develop a clear plan for growth and an active industrial policy (investing in manufacturing, green industries and apprenticeships), so that we can create a broader, more balanced economy, rather than the skewed, misshapen and city-driven creature of neo-liberal economic theory.

Labour’s new programme must not be imposed from the top but fed and informed by people in communities across the country who have something to tell us and hold our fate in their hands. Never again must we allow ourselves to become so aloof and out of touch. This means listening to and engaging with our councillors, activists, trade unionists, rank and file members and, above all, those who either deserted us in the polling booths or didn’t bother to turn out at all.

Every government runs into trouble and the coalition will be no exception. The biggest mistake would be simply to wait for them to lose the next election. Instead, Labour needs to ‘fess up, stop spinning and start inspiring millions of voters by fighting for a fairer, less divisive and more equal Britain.

Sally Bercow

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9 Responses to “Our new leader will need to ‘fess up, stop spinning and start inspiring, says Sally Bercow”

  1. Matthew Davis says:

    Typical champagne socialist to start with ‘At a drinks party…’

  2. John Joseph says:

    Do you really mean “the chronic *iniquity* of the coalition’s policies”. Iniquity means gross immorality or wickedness, and if this is actually your view, then what you have said in the preceding paragraph about it being “simply not credible for the new leader to roundly condemn every single one of the coalition’s policies” rings totally hollow.

  3. Liz McShane says:

    Great article. Spot on Sally!

  4. Chuck Unsworth says:

    How long will it take for the slightest public confidence in Labour to form? Five years? A decade? Never?

    As to ‘out of touch’ – name one Labour MP who is ‘in touch’. That’s not to say that any others are any better, but if your argument is based on MPs being ‘in touch’ then it’s a non-starter. Sadly, those that you suggest ought to be listened to are generallythe die-hard supporters of Labour anyway – you’d find it very difficult to establish who were those who did not turn out or ‘deserted’ Labour. What Labour should be doing is listening to the public at large – and that includes the Conservatives, Lib Dems etc – rather than its own grass roots (who doubtless voted for it in the last election and where did that get them?).

    If it’s not a question of waiting for the next election how will Labour attain power again? A military coup? A General Strike?

    There’s a great deal of discussion about what ‘should’ be the policies, but as yet not a single one has appeared – apart from that of attacking the Government. Maybe that is the new NuLab policy, anyway – a nihilistic approach to everything and denial of real responsibility. ‘It started in America’? Maybe, but it certainly finishes here.

  5. AndyN says:

    a better, fairer more tolerant country

    You mean the country whose working class you posh socialists abandoned and thereby enabled a pitiful rag-tag group of neo-fascists to gain an electoral foothold for the first time since the 30s?

    an economy saved from depression

    Please tell me you’re joking.

    ‘fess up

    Privately-educated socialist in her 40s tries to adopt street argot. Toe-curlingly embarrassing.

    progressive….idealism….fairer….social justice….socially mobile….communities….blah blah blah

    Heard it all before about a thousand times. Labour bloggers have about 20 keywords, throw in some filler around them and then try and present the resulting dog’s dinner as political insight.

    None of you actually have the remotest idea as to how you might achieve any of this stuff, let alone possess the talent or intellect to drive it through – which is why every time Labour gets into government everything goes completely tits up.

  6. AS says:

    But, but. Anyone worth their salt in marketing, PR or any other communications discipline will tell you that however good the PR, you can only really sell what you’re selling: apples is apples and oranges is oranges, and no salesman can convince anyone otherwise.

    When people talk about ‘rebranding’ they’re employing a phrase which, by admission, often doesn’t sit well with some of the party. But marketing and communciations are just about what messages about what we already do, and to whom. For example, how do we communicate with the plurarity of Labour audiences and how; do we talk about immigration with C2DEs on by leaflet, and civil liberties with AB Guardian readers on Twitter? Etc, etc.

    This in mind, the point of this article is a bit silly. Talking honestly, and in Plain English without delving into technocratic jargon is one thing; it’s quite another to act as though politicans won’t instinctively tailor messages and mediums to specific audiences. The Labour Party, likewise, won’t win power unless it’s clear not only about its value but who, in a diverse and fragmented society, it wants to vote for it – and how it engages with them.

  7. epictrader says:

    I really enjoyed Sally Bercow’s article; she has an engaging and entertaining writing style, hope to see a lot more from her on here. As for her ‘champagne socialism’, I hope she is fortunate enough to attend many more drink parties in her lifetime and have good health to do so; all the while batting Labour’s corner. My time is too precious, and my life too short, to deny or judge anyone’s right to chose how they spend their own.

    A bit disappointed that she doesn’t see the progression of women within the party, within politics generally and in society as one of our priorities as a party – lots of work still to be done there I think. For example, how we never got to succeed in providing equal pay for women after 13 years in government is extremely disappointing and what “fighting for a fairer Britain” should be all about.

  8. AmberStar says:

    @ Sally

    Let me break it to you: Out here in the regions, most potential Labour voters could not care less about civil liberties, ID cards, prisons and the digital economy.

    Housing (or more accurately the desperate lack of it) is a problem without a solution. Britain had a social housing stock – the Tories gave it away. If Labour build more housing, another Tory government will get elected simply by promising to give away what Labour has built.

    An active industrial policy would be welcome; how would it be achieved? Nobody lifted a finger to stop the exodus of employers from silicon glen when the subsidies ended & globalism meant they didn’t need to manufacture in Europe to sell into the European market; why would we want a repeat of that?

    If there is to be an active industrial policy, how would you get around corporations soaking up government subsidies then moving everything to ‘low cost’ regions as soon as the tax-payer funds stopped flowing?

    One thing you are correct about, Sally. An alternative vision won’t be found by tinkering around the edges – but I think it would require such a huge shift to the left that it could render Labour unelectable.

    Creative tinkering & a finger on the scales at the appropriate place & time is probably the best we can hope for. Meanwhile, Labour should fight every cut & every coalition backdoor privatisation. What they give away, we will never get back. 😎

  9. james says:

    John, Sally is saying is that the coalition’s policy agenda overall – rushed deficit reduction at the expense of a strong recovery – is to be opposed. But that does not mean spending time on opposing every detail. An opposition party also has to put forward alternative proposals and offer people hope.

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