by Atul Hatwal
Originally conceived by psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969, the change curve was formulated as a way to understand how people cope with catastrophic loss or terminal illness.
You get where this is going.
Subsequently, it emerged that the change curve accurately described the stages an individual or an organisation go through when they experience profound change. If you’ve been through a big change management programme at work, chances are, this will have played a big role in shaping it.
Defeat at the general election was as big a shock to the system as Labour has ever experienced. Since then, the party has recongnisably gone through the initial stages of the curve. Numbness, denial, fear and anger are all emotions the party has displayed in the past fifteen months.
This week, as Labour has gathered in Liverpool, the curve crystallises a sense I’ve had for a while and explains some of what the party seems to be feeling.
There’s been a curious insouciance about Labour this conference. The rules of political gravity appear to have been somehow suspended.
The signs were there at the start. On Monday, Maurice Glasman mounted one of his regular excursions off the reservation.
Glasman called for a package of measures that, amongst other things, involved re-negotiating all European treaties and his version of British jobs for British workers.
Under normal circumstances, to have one of the leader’s closest advisers veering into national socialist territory would have prompted angry denials from the press team and a very clear rebuke from the leader.
Gravity would have been enforced and Glasman would have felt the full force of concrete.
Not this year.
Gallic shrugs, rueful smiles and words to the effect that Maurice was just being Maurice, were the reactions.
The response had more in common with the types of behaviour associated with depression rather than a purposeful political machine. Inaction, inertia and lackadaisical nonchalance replaced the basics of political management.
One of the common emotions when going through the first half of the change curve is to become almost semi-detached from reality. Things happen, but their consequence is dulled. It’s more interesting to challenge the rules of the game than to deal with their result.
And then came the leader’s speech.
Regardless of the theatrics, how he looked, how he spoke, one point shone out. He didn’t get ‘it’, or more accurately, engage with ‘it’. ‘It’ being the challenge set by the media, and according to the polls, the public, to demonstrate why Ed Miliband would be a credible prime minister.
It wasn’t that he mistook what was required, as my esteemed Uncut colleague Dan Hodges has written elsewhere, Ed Miliband simply didn’t care.
This wasn’t an aggressive reaction against the rule book. Ed Miliband didn’t rage against the machine, he just ignored it.
The disastrous press reviews of the speech should have been eminently predictable by the leader and his team. But as the speech amply demonstrated, they aren’t looking out at the world, their focus is internal. They seem to be marooned on the curve somewhere between anger and depression.
Anger at what went before with Blair and Brown and how this blighted Labour. Depression that neither the public nor media can see why Cameron is wrong and the last Labour government was right on the big questions.
That’s why all of the briefings before this speech were about ‘changing the frame’ and ‘rejecting old choices’. The speech was inspired by frustration and a desire to not be bound by the rules any more. A political mid-life crisis brought to us by some of the advisers who helped build New Labour.
As presaged by the curve on the vertical axis, the biggest casualty of this type of descent into inward-looking frustration is competence.
Last year, there was a numbness. But in that numbness, Labour still operated as a functioning political party. Harriet had had a good summer and the machine broadly worked. Shadow cabinet members stuck to the lines to take and the party in the country carried on as before.
This year we’ve had the Maurice Glasman sideshow, the Refounding Labour charade where grown-ups try to assign epochal significance to trivial process changes that will be forgotten within weeks and, on the morning of the leader’s speech, Ivan Lewis’s plans to licence journalists.
On any reading, Lewis’s plans should have raised alarm bells. Banning journalists in the way doctors can be struck off is hardly going to pass without media comment.
But to launch these proposals hours before a leader with a difficult media relationship is about to give a critical speech, is beyond baffling.
Labour’s predicament makes for gloomy reading. But all is not lost.
The lesson of the change curve is that in the end, most people accept the change and move on.
The current strange indifference amongst the delegates and members to the polls will not persist indefinitely. Delivering leaflets and knocking doors, only to lose elections, tests the patience of even the most committed activist.
The challenge for the leadership will be to move along the curve just as surely as the membership will. Either Ed Miliband and his advisers will grasp the magnitude of what needs to be done and lead or be left behind, trapped in impotent grief.
Based on this conference, the signs aren’t promising. But come what may, as the curve predicts, change will come, with or without this leadership team.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.