by Peter Watt
There has been much debate since the general election about whether the toxicity of the Conservative brand led to them falling short of an overall majority. Proponents of this theory hold that while David Cameron had gone some way towards detoxifying the Conservative brand, he had not gone far enough. The result was that, although the public had decided that they certainly didn’t want a Labour government, they hadn’t yet decided that they wanted a Conservative one.
If this was the case, and I suspect that it was, then this latent brand toxicity remains a problem for team Cameron. The government is currently being defined by one (economic) policy – cuts. Everything it does and says is, however unfairly, seen through that prism. Welfare reform – driven by cuts; public service reform – driven by cuts; “big society” – masking cuts. No matter how hard he tries, David Cameron simply can’t seem to get any other story up about what his government is for, or its vision.
The danger for him is that this economic argument will feed the toxicity of their brand. Notions of the Conservative party as “out of touch” and being the “nasty party” will once again come to the fore; something the Cameroons know would be hugely problematic. And, of course, the truly shambolic approach to communications management to date from Number 10 certainly doesn’t help. The recent expansion of the Number 10 team and the addition of the respected pollster Andrew Cooper, in particular, to the Cameron team, seem to indicate that the prime minister recognises the danger.
So team Miliband should be pleased. The government has had a torrid time since the new year and is failing to project a vision. Instead, it is beginning inadvertently to reawaken deeply held concerns about their true motives for the choices they are making. Meanwhile, Labour is regularly polling double digit leads.
But there lessons in this for Labour, which is itself a highly toxic brand.
We lost the general election because we were seen as being arrogant and out of touch. We lost because we were seen as being economically illiterate and having massively overspent. And we lost because we were seen as being in favour of top down big government.
If we are to win the next election, we clearly need to detoxify our own brand. However, it is not clear that we have as yet fully appreciated just how toxic and unpopular we had become. The recent travails of the government, our riding high in the polls and by-election wins have masked this. In reality, not much has changed that will fundamentally begin our necessary brand detoxification. What has happened, of course, is that internally we have convinced ourselves that we are becoming popular. The odd apology here or there and we will be ok.
But this head-in-the-sand approach is dangerous for Labour. Far from detoxifying, we currently risk retoxifying. Ed Balls has done a great job of challenging the government over the pace of deficit reduction. But we are still opposing every cut, every library closure, every reduction in police numbers and every job loss. It might make us feel better and win some short term popularity. But it isn’t an answer to the charge that we had become economically illiterate and had allowed massive overspending.
Attacks on the big society are fun and are incredibly easy at the moment. But does it help to explain that we fully understand the danger of being perceived as a party of “big government”? And we are still out of touch and arrogant, still seeming to think that we are the party of all that is good in the world and everyone else is either flawed or worse. We need to wake up to the fact that right now that is not how we are perceived by much of the public.
Ed Miliband was right to say that he wouldn’t be taking a husky ride anytime soon to show that Labour understands why it lost. But he does need to do something, or we will start the long run into the election in 2015 not having tackled the very issues that lost us the last election. It is worth remembering that Cameron’s attempts to detoxify were attacked from the right. It almost certainly tempered his efforts at detoxifying his party’s brand, with the result that they failed to win an overall majority.
Labour may take comfort from the fact that the Conservative party is still seen as being the nasty party. But if the next election is seen as a contest of nasty Tories versus arrogant/economically illiterate/big government Labour, then I suspect that we will be disappointed. But unless we accept and then address the fact that our brand is toxic, that is exactly what is likely to happen.
Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party. He is now chief executive of counsel and care.