We haven’t got time to be rational

by Peter Watt

A mistake that we make on the left is to behave as though people make rational decisions, when we know that on the whole they don’t. People tend to make emotional decisions. We go with what feels right; and then if it feels right we adapt our rational thinking to meet our emotional view of the world.

It is what we do when we are trying to make decisions in our personal lives. You may start with logic, but ultimately you just go with your gut. And it is as true in politics as in life. If we had won in May, we would have made cuts, reformed welfare and implemented the Browne review. OK, we might have done things slightly differently (I am sure that we wouldn’t have tripled tuition fees; but we’d have put them up), but we would have rationalised the things we didn’t like. We would have taken to the airwaves and Twitter in defence of the government’s decisions. We would be stressing the overall impact of the international banking crisis and the noble and progressive motives of the government.

And that is why a “two year blank piece of paper” is potentially disastrous for Ed Miliband’s leadership, and therefore the Labour party’s chances at the next election. Rationally, of course, it makes sense. We have just suffered the worse election defeat for nearly thirty years. A period of reflection; time being taken developing policies for an election not due to be fought until 2015; what is wrong with that?

What is wrong is that by the time we have developed coherent and rational policies, the voters may have emotionally made their judgement. If, in two years time, voters have a settled view that we are still economically illiterate, on the side of the workshy and are anti-aspiration, then whatever policy platform rationally emerges is likely to fall on deaf ears. No doubt there will be much fanfare as we launch our shiny new policies. But it won’t fit the voters view of us.Frankly, it will be too late.

Of course, with the Liberal Democrats in serious trouble with the voters, we may feel that all we need to do is hold on and wait for their disgruntled hordes to swell our ranks. Membership is on the up and we are winning local by-elections. Prospects for next May look good. But that sort of complacency would be a terrible mistake. The next general election will be a choice between us and the Tories, and they will be in the box seat.

They will have a strong story to tell. They will say that they saved the economy, cut back on Labour excesses and promoted aspiration and excellence.  They will be talking up a bright future with a strong and articulate leader at the helm. Labour will be characterised as being economically dangerous, inexperienced, and anti-aspiration. We will be painted as statists who want to impose top-down solutions and interfere in people’s lives. The Tories will appeal to people who see progress for themselves and their families as being no longer reliant on the state. And all of that could be set in emotional stone among the electorate before our policy review concludes.

Clearly, we should not rush the review. But the leadership must have a pretty clear view of what it expects to emerge? I hope so, at any rate. The phrase “blank piece of paper” was presumably a mistake. If it isn’t to become a millstone, then we need to start filling in some of the blanks, and fast. The notion of a two year policy review starting with a “blank piece of paper” appears to have led to a complete lack of coherence in our approach. We seem to be unsure of what exactly we stand for; and all the while our opponents are writing our script.

What we quickly need is a strong sense of the sort of themes that we will be clearly, and in detail, be articulating by 2013. What is our vision about the role and limits of the state in tackling society’s problems? What are the core principles that will guide us? What sort of leader is Ed and how are we are going to define ourselves against the Tories?

So while we definitely do not need detailed policy, we definitely do need to know what is the direction of travel.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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3 Responses to “We haven’t got time to be rational”

  1. Robin Thorpe says:

    I broadly agree with what is said here; I think it was a mistake for the policy review to be spoken of as a blank piece of paper. I don’t think this is entirely what was meant but is of course all that the media want to talk about. I think I am right in saying that Ed Miliband also stated that his views on many areas of policy were set out in his leadership election. Perhaps if he had subsequently put more emphasis on the cogent and intelligent policy base that he had submitted he would not have had as many detractors. He has tried to be flexible and open to ideas, perhaps an admission that he did not have a majority vote from the MPs and Labour Party members, whilst I do not think this shows weakness (arguably it shows strength of character) it does not transmit an ideological message to the public. The public needs to know what Labour stands for; or rather the public needs to be reminded what Labour represents. Wealth, Power and Opportunity in the hands of the many not the few.
    Although perhaps out of vogue I find the writing, reflections and teachings of Ed’s father Ralph Miliband a source of inspiration. In 1987 he said this – “It is necessary and possible to create an altogether different society in Britain, a society whose organising principles will be co-operation, fellowship, democracy and egalitarianism…. free from every form of domination and exploitation, of class, of sex and of race.” I think this would be a jolly good starting point for Miliband junior to lay out the ideological differences between the parties and with which to attack the current coalition.

  2. Praguetory says:

    Keep wishing. The GE result was about the best you could hope for. Safety from the need to take difficult decisions without complete annihilation. Your current polling numbers consolidates a narrative which will prevent your hierarchy from taking anything other than a safety first approach to regaining power.

  3. William says:

    The tories will fight the next general election with a photo of Gordon Brown, and a reminder that they have turned the economy round,which is hardly difficult given the size of the bust.Until Labour owns up to the disaster inflicted upon the UK from the history graduate from Fife,there is no chance of this once important party returning to serve the country.

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