by Peter Watt
In government it can be difficult to keep telling a coherent story about what the common purpose of the administration is. You start off with “New Labour, new Britain”, and end up, well who knows quite where we ended up? But that is the point; events, complexity and the sheer relentlessness of governing gets in the way of the message.
You try and stick to the script, “tough on crime” say, but then someone lets a load of foreign criminals out of prison and you don’t look so tough. Or you start talking about going “back to basics”, and then members of your top team get caught with their trousers down or lining their pockets. And lots of things that sounded so simple in opposition suddenly look complicated and undeliverable in government. Just think about the promises to reverse immigration trends by the Tories. They look laughable now.
But in opposition you have no such problems. In fact the opposite is true. The monotony of being responsible for nothing means that you are fighting for attention. It’s not sticking to the story that is the problem, it’s anyone listening to the story at all. You have such limited opportunity to tell your story that you can’t afford subtlety or nuance. Such luxuries get in the way. You need to paint in big bright colours so that people notice. This can also be a strategic advantage. Whilst you can draw clear and unambiguous lines, government ministers are forced to fudge under pressure from advice from civil servants and the reality of unintended consequences. And there aren’t many aspects of being in opposition that can be described as advantageous.
Well maybe it’s just me, but Labour seems a bit all over the place at the moment on the opposition front. In fact they seem all over the place a lot at the moment. So how can they have got things so wrong recently?
Let’s take the deficit. For months they appeared to refuse to acknowledge the full harsh reality of the deficit and the scale of the cuts required to deal with this. Instead there was a complex series of explanations and justifications that involved banks, lack of a growth strategy, world recession and the generally unpleasant nature of Tories. Anyone and anything except Labour in fact. Not surprisingly this was not particularly successful as far as voters were concerned.
And then recently Ed and Ed appeared to clarify and simplify this. It was an important moment; not a change per se, but a change in emphasis certainly. Labour now accepted that they would unable to reverse the Tory cuts after the next election. The deficit was such that it would be impossible to promise this. Good so far. Clear, simple and unambiguous. And we would support a public sector pay freeze over investment in jobs. Even better; we now had a crystal clear story. We are fiscally responsible and will take the tough steps needed to reduce the deficit and promote job creation.
And the icing on the cake was being attacked for this change by “Red” Len McCluskey, a good old fashioned trade union firebrand. It couldn’t get much better. All we had to do was keep telling people our clear and unambiguous story that reiterated our fiscal responsibility. But oh no; we had to start being clever and playing to the left of centre gallery. You see (clarification coming) Labour doesn’t actually support the Tories cuts, even though we would also have had to cut under the Darling plan. No, because the Tory cuts are ideological and bad, while Labour’s would be reluctant and in the national interest. The Tories are cutting too far and too fast, and we would cut less and slower – well at least until after the next election.
It risks convincing no one and we will keep getting stuck every time we are asked which of the Tory cuts Labour will keep. Our clear and unambiguous message is watered down at best.
And then there is the welfare reform bill. It is massively popular with the public that the government is proposing to cap at £26,000 per annum the amount of welfare payments that any one family can receive. It’s not surprising that people feel this way, and in fact for many people the fact that the cap needs to be set at all confirms their view that Labour had been over generous with tax payer’s money in the first place. And Liam Byrne was crystal clear and unambiguous that Labour supported a cap.
Our story was clear; we did not support welfare dependency for those who could work and we were absolutely on the side of working families. Fantastic; and then we fudged it again by trying to be all nuanced. Labour sided with the bishops in the Lords to try and argue that the cap should be effectively raised beyond the £26,000. Brilliant. David Cameron wandered off to talk to some Asda workers and asked if they thought that it should be raised as Labour wanted. What do you think they thought? Well I would suspect that they thought that £26,000 was too high not too low. Labour’s clear and unambiguous message is watered down.
So far from enjoying one of the few benefits of opposition, the ability to be unrealistically strident and paint policy in big bold and unambiguous colours, Labour seems intent on confusion. Ed and Ed need to decide whether their primary audience is a Labour faithful one or a sceptical public. You can’t play to both successfully. The Labour faithful love nuance and detail. A sceptical public need to know clearly and unambiguously what we stand for. Ed Miliband should remember that for all the talk of leadership threats it is the sceptical public that holds his fate in their hands.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.