A three point plan for opposition

by Peter Watt

Being in opposition can be thankless and getting the tone right can be tricky. Right about now it is doubly so. Which is why I was taken by an interesting article over at Labour List penned by Mark Ferguson. In “Labour can’t afford to look smug“, Mark argues that Labour risks looking smug in the face of the current dire economic situation if they appear to take every bad headline or statistic as vindication for their proposed approach. As he says, if we look smug:

“…then all we do is ensure that at best the public think ‘a plague on all your houses’ and at worst, we end up looking smug about a crisis that many people think we caused”.

Now I didn’t agree with some of the underlying assumptions in the post, but on this central tenet he was spot on. We do sometimes and inadvertently sound quite pleased at the poor economic outlook and the public hate it. And so I started thinking about what exactly the strategy for opposition should be for Labour right now. And I have come up with a cunning three point plan.

First, Labour should listen to those, like Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, who say that the very best Labour can get on the economy is a score draw on the deficit and a win on growth. But that means that they have to stop shouting, possibly smugly, at the Tories.

In the face of an imploding Eurozone, we look faintly ridiculous and out of touch when we cry “it’s all their fault”. Labour give the impression that they think that they were right all along on the economy and that the Tories are wrong. If only the Tories would listen to Labour, and their five point growth plan, then the economy would turn around.

But it just won’t wash with voters right now, irrespective of whether or not it is in anyway based on fact. The fact is that voters are quite entitled to have contradi

    ctory feelings; and on the economy they do. They feel that Labour was a key cause of the dire state of the economy, while also believing that the world economic conditions are to blame. They think that the Tories could do more to ease the situation, but think that increasingly, the decisions that matter are taken elsewhere and are out of their hands.  They do think that the Tories are cutting too fast, but they want them to cut the deficit and trust them more than Labour to do so. And these beliefs are pretty ingrained, so that Labour almost certainly cannot win an economic argument on the deficit.

    To get a draw it will need to sound sensible, occasionally supportive of the Government and less shrill. And they will need to continue to repeat that they too would cut the deficit.  The best hope, and it is still a tough ask, is that come the next election voters worried about the deficit won’t fear a vote for Labour. And on growth, they should stop announcing grand plans for windfall taxes on this and growth funds for that. It all sounds very tax, spend and big state.

    People will not believe that we can deliver it or that it would work. Instead Labour should build their economic credentials from the ground up, with a pro-business approach that talks about small achievable and believable policies aimed at encouraging job creation through enterprise. They should build up links with business and pro-business bodies that will help deliver and champion Labour’s policy. It may not be as exciting as goading Tories from the despatch box over rising unemployment or the absence of growth, but it stands a better chance of convincing the electorate that we are credible.

    Second, we should attack the Tories on their incompetence. It is on this, not the economy, that we will be able to land some meaty blows. At a time of great national, indeed international, crisis voters will worry about whether their government is incompetent. So Labour should develop a clear language to describe the Tories incompetence and repeat repeat the charge often. It will stick, because it will resonate.

    Just think about Theresa May and the incompetent way that she managed our borders.  Or Liam Fox and the incompetent way he ran a shadow defence policy with his school mate. The “stop-start” Lansley health reforms. The bodged privatisation of our national forests. And the incompetent handling of prisons policy.

    Their incompetence has meant that crime is rising and their immigration cap is not working. You get the idea. And with David “I don’t do detail” Cameron’s penchant for mistakes and the inherent tensions of coalition, there is surely more to come. Once the label has stuck, it will be hard to shift. And when, as it will, their equivalent of lost data disks happens the headlines will write themselves.

    And third, having neutralised the economy as best we can and branded the Tories as incompetent, we need a vision. Here is where we have an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is that Ed Miliband has a vision. He clearly thinks that the notion of a more moral economy is an idea that should have its day. That people understand that some of the practices in the cut throat end of market forces are inherently unfair and unscrupulous. So energy companies exploit consumers and sweat shops their workers, all whilst highly paid executives milk the system. For decades the millions of families in the middle income brackets have been squeezed and seen their incomes lose value.

    Ed thinks that people have had enough, and are looking for a better and fairer way. He has already got the support of some in business. So far so good. But there is a problem.  He hasn’t managed to articulate it yet. In fact it’s worse; when he has tried to, he has made his argument look flimsy at best. Just think about his conference speech that lead to him spending three days explaining what he actually meant. Or his recent Observer article about understanding why some people felt disillusioned with the current economic settlement. That became a story about his alleged support for the occupy protests. It led to supportive bloggers having to write explanatory posts. Again, not what he intended.

    So he has a vision. But he hasn’t yet managed to find a way to articulate it, to sell it. Just because you think that you are talking about real people’s problems, doesn’t mean that they will automatically hear you. So he needs to move quickly to rectify this and he badly needs someone who can help him do this – he can’t do it himself.

    So my three point plan for opposition – don’t shout at the Tories on the economy but talk about business; attack the Tories for their incompetence and finally start talking about your vision in a way that people will understand.

    Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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8 Responses to “A three point plan for opposition”

  1. swatantra says:

    I agree with the pro-business approach; Labour, all the way down to the grass roots, must start to understand and love business certainly SME’s. Most of Labour history has been a complete denial of ‘business’, and its simply no longer on. Ethics and social and corporate responsibility is what we should be hammering home.
    The point on ‘incompotance ‘ is well made; we aren’t going to win on ‘the economy’ because our handling would be very little different to the Tories, give or take reducing the deficit in double the time whatver that means. The fact is politicians aren’t going to solve the economic problem, only the technocrats can do that.
    And the 3rd point about a vision, well I’m as confused about what Eds Vision is along with the 70 m other people in the UK.
    Ed needs to ditch his present advisors and get a new lot in.

  2. Nick says:

    The problem is that your assessment is biased.

    1. You left the deficit. Increasing the deficit, which is Balls’ plan B, doesn’t decrease it.

    2. You’ve missed off the debts. The big debts Bernie Maddoff’ed off the books. I’m not talking the small debts such as PFI, but the big ones, pensions. Fraud if a company produced its accounts in the same way.

    3. Even on Growth. What percentage of government spending is on investment? Bugger all. Even when you look at HS2, it has a negative return. Ticket prices will never cover the costs. Hence it is just lumbering the tax payer with a debt that won’t go on services.

    4. Vision. Apple pie, lots of money for all, it’s all cuckoo land. What matters is the reality not wishful thinking.

    The reality is massive debts that the state will never pay, because the UK doesn’t generate enough money to pay them.

    So the B in Plan B, is for bankruptcy.

  3. Nick says:

    Their incompetence has meant that crime is rising and their immigration cap is not working

    And how many millions did Labour let in?

    The public have wissed up, your both incompetent and shouldn’t be trusted to run a play shop in a primary school. [At that’s being unfair to a 4 year old]

  4. I agree with pretty much everything you have written here because in 18 months of the Coalition Government Labour *still* haven’t managed to make any of their attacks from ‘The Left’, stick. A change of tone is definitely needed- however I wouldn’t be foolish enough to presume that Ed Miliband doesn’t know this though. He did after all, originally appoint Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor for what one can only assume was this very reason.

    Compare to Ed Balls who, instead of making the flatlining gesture at David Cameron has now taken to shouting; “WHERE IS YOUR BIG BAZOOKA”, repeatedly- which is funny, granted, but does nothing more than prompt Cameron to turn a shade of purple every Wednesday afternoon. This tactic is effective in the short-term, but much like Balls’ economic arguments, completely unsustainable as a vote winner in the long-term.

    Regarding your point about the imploding Eurozone, I’d actually say that we don’t look as stupid as the Conservatives when they proclaim, “it’s all Labours fault”. I’m not naive enough to suggest that the Eurozone crisis isn’t having an effect on the UK economy, but the Conservatives conflation of UK and European issues hardly reinforces their original attack on Labour since coming into power- that the financial crisis was in effect, 13 years of Labour’s making. Labour are right to point out this hypocrisy. Cameron can hardly decry other countries lack of growth when he is imposing austerity on Britain and his Chancellor is blaming slow growth on snow.

    To add to the third point of your plan- the vision, I would make the point that the Conservatives are essentially *directionless without the deficit*. George Osborne and David Cameron still haven’t managed to present a vision for Britain, it is not in Osborne’s emotional skillset and the Big Society is a damp squib. In my mind there is a huge opportunity for Labour to create a populist movement from the left. Ed Miliband has started to develop some of these themes, but I think it is important to recognise where we are in the political cycle- 2015 is a long way away and the Britian of tomorrow will have radically changed by then.

  5. Ralph Baldwin says:

    You have a lot to learn about Ed and his advisors who are tyring to emulate a model taken from others..badly you have a lot to learn about people. But one of the best articles I have read in a long time 🙂

  6. Chris Johnson says:

    Well put, Peter. My thoughts too.
    The Party’s current peoccupation with a ” Five point Plan for Growth”, while having worthwhile objectives seem to be little more than sloganising. There is no detailed policy background (I have asked questions of the Regional Office and Ed Balls, with no reply).
    The public probably thinks it is another Labour scheme involving borrowing even more money to fund it. (I thought bankers’ bonuses came only once a year but the money is needed now.) But as this is an Opposition proposal it was never likely to be taken up by the Government. Why then waste any time on producing any supporting figures or policy detail? I don’t think the public will be impressed.
    Labour has to bridge a “credibility gap ” on the economy. As you suggest, a little more thought and a little less noise would help.

  7. MickleMas says:

    What I find deplorable about this article is the way commentators equate perception with reality. Your argument is ‘past Labour may have had the right policies but if the public believed they were the wrong policies, then they WERE the wrong policies. Furthermore, the present Labour leadership should reinforce that misconception and apologise for “past errors”‘.
    The consequence of this “poll-orientated” approach to past and present Labour policies is that the general public believe that Labour, from 1997-2010, had a negative influence on our economy and living standards and that the present Labour leadership (and shadow cabinet) is lacking in quality, professionalism and charisma.
    Over the next year this Tory-led government are going to radically lose public support but I fear that they will still command control because Ed Miliband will fail to impress and convert sufficient voters to support Labour. Come the next General Election we could well have another hung parliament. What a pathetic epithet that would be to Ed Milband’s short reign as leader!
    By the by, if we’d won in 2010 Gordon Brown would have been far more influential and effective in sorting out the problems of the euro-zone and without the undemocratic control of ‘business’ (or ‘technocrats’ as some simpletons call them).

  8. Cathrine says:

    I tottaly agree with that opinion! Thank you for your text it helped me a lot!

    btw. i have problem with Damp proofing company, i don’t know which to use!

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