The twelve rules of opposition: day nine

by Atul Hatwal

Rule 9: Your strength is your weakness

No-one likes to be unpopular. When a party loses an election, its members and activists do not just feel unpopular, they experience utter rejection at the hands of voters. All those leaflets delivered, doors knocked and phone calls made. For nothing.

What most oppositions do next is no surprise. The retreat into the comfort zone is as understandable as it is likely.

Each party has issues on which they lead, even in the throes of defeat. For example, Labour has the NHS, while the Tories are preferred on immigration. The temptation is to return to these subjects, where the sunshine of public support is still felt, as the mainstays of campaigns in opposition.

It recharges the batteries of a beaten party to do something popular again. For people to see a party stall in the high street and not avert their eyes is sustenance for activists’ political soul.

There is good in this, morale has to be rebuilt and governments need to be held to account, but danger lurks for an opposition.

Emphasising the old faithfuls does nothing to change the public’s view of a losing party.

As much as they might support the party on the individual issue, it is part of an overall package that was rejected at the previous election. The more stridently a party reaffirms its position on this issue, the more it confirms the public’s impression that the other policies, the ones which lost the election, are still in place.

Rule 9 involves being aware of this danger and not chasing a short term tactical win at the expense of making the strategic changes needed to win the next election.

The slide into the comfort zone follows a well worn three-stage cycle.

First, the opposition alights on a campaign on one of their heartland issues that captures the public mood.

In 2000, William Hague abandoned his earlier talk of modernisation and tolerance following persistently poor polling and started making hardline speeches about immigration and asylum.

At a similar stage in his leadership, Michael Howard did the same thing. In October 2004, Howard’s speech to the Conservative party conference majored on Europe and immigration. It even included a pledge to withdraw from the UN convention on refugees.

For both Hague and Howard, their right-turn generated the best headlines to date of their respective tenures leading the opposition.

More recently, Labour in opposition has waged high profile campaigns on public sector cuts and the NHS which have energised the base.

The intensity of feeling was evident in the thousands of Labour party members who marched against the cuts as part of the TUC’s demonstration in London in March last year.

Second, as the leadership take their first steps back into familiar territory, the echo chamber of activists, supportive journalists, affiliates and, more recently, bloggers, starts to reverberate to the sound of a party convincing itself they’ve found a way back into the public’s affections.

Commentators write pieces talking about how the party is finding its voice again. Activists report positive public feedback to the stand the party is taking. And MPs chatter about a warm response on the mythical doorstep.

Any positive news after years of bad is like the first drops of rain on a parched desert. It’s welcome, and addictive. The leadership crave this affirmation and any respite from the torrent of bad headlines.

So they continue down the track.

For Hague and Howard, immigration changed from being a one-off to a recurring theme. A go-to issue to stem bad publicity from poor polling and maintain activist enthusiasm.

For Ed Milliband, the growing importance of the campaign on the NHS was shown in his shadow cabinet reshuffle. John Healey’s quiet style earned him the axe because the leader wanted a higher profile, harder hitting campaign to be at the heart of Labour’s activity in 2012.

The increasing reliance on core vote issues culminates in the third stage of the cycle in the general election campaign when the party puts them at the heart of the campaign.

Political time and effort that could have been spent re-defining the party, is expended re-iterating a message that confirms how the party has now established its headquarters squarely in the middle of its comfort zone.

William Hague’s speech in March 2001 stating parts of Britain were in danger of looking like “foreign lands” was the strongest articulation of their position on immigration in years.

Four years later, Michael Howard fought the 2005 campaign principally on immigration, asylum and travellers. The first time these issues had ever been central in a general election.

In 2001 and 2005 voters drew the unsurprising conclusion that the things they disliked about the Tories were unchanged, and the party remained resolutely outside the mainstream.

The 2015 general election is far off, but on the basis of Ed Miliband’s choices so far, Labour’s trajectory would suggest a campaign fought on a defence of the public services.

Regardless of the substantive merits of protecting the public services, fighting an election using the same dividing lines as the 1980s is unlikely to have a happy ending for Labour.

Underpinning the strategic errors of Hague and Howard was an inability to distinguish what people in the country were actually thinking, with the noise in their echo chamber.

In 1983, while on the campaign trail, Michael Foot reportedly turned to an aide during the applause to one of his speeches and said – “can you hear that, the people are with us”. The response came back, “that’s fine, but it’s the people outside the hall we need to worry about”.

Apocryphal or not, Ed Miliband would do well to heed that advice when reading yet another positive piece by Polly Toynbee or Jackie Ashley.

Tomorrow: Rule 10 – Stories, stories, stories

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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6 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition: day nine”

  1. TEDDY MCNABB says:

    errr “labour has the NHS” Excuse me it was Blue Labour [ being the closet tories they are] who began the privitisatoon of the NHS and just to add to that it was Blue labour who started the vile welfare reform bill, as the equally vile coalition like to remind them of during PMQ,S Vote Blue labour get a tory.

  2. AmberStar says:

    The thing is, if you are going outside your comfort zone, you must be:

    1. Convinced yourself; &
    2. Have already convinced MPs & activists, before it becomes a headline issue.

    Here’s the example for 1: Ed gave a stormer of speech against Cameron’s so-called veto of the EU treaty changes. Then refused to say what position Labour would’ve taken, then said Labour would likely have said no, but in a different way & for different reasons… way too subtle. You only get to be passionately against something, if you are passionately for an alternative.

    Here’s the example for 2: Ed wanted the element of surprise for his ‘Producers or Predators’ speech to conference; & he achieved that. Unfortunately, his shadow cabinet ministers were like rabbits in the headlights because they were surprised too! But still… it go people talking about Labour, polling showed people agreed with the sentiment & it was a good speech… so that was some consolation.

    So… Ed’s going up the learning curve, as any new leader does. But it is getting close to the time when Labour need to be comfortable, committed & convincing on all the major issues – even if it is difficult because we aren’t saying back at people what polling has told us they want to hear.

    And in another way, you are correct: Andy Burnham saying Labour will reverse the changes to the NHS was the first clear message which we’d heard from Labour on any of the major issues.

  3. Felix says:

    ‘the mythical doorstep”

    It no doubt is mythical imagined and never seen from the ivory tower of the Uncut commentariat. Can’t be dealing with the grubby business of real conversations with stroppy voters, now can we? That’s the mucky work of lowly activists only.

  4. figurewizard says:

    Taking comfort from ‘thousands marching against the cuts’ isn’t going to help. The cuts have been and will continue to be necessary as a result of a Labour government hurling progressively higher taxation at the public sector, then dipping into the money markets to raise some more when that was deemed politically undesirable for the moment. And for what? Compared to your thousands of marchers there are millions of others who look at what this has brought their standards of living and expectations to and conclude that all they appear to have got for this is 850,000 extra public sector jobs and s*d all else in return.

  5. Madasafish says:

    The 2015 general election is far off, but on the basis of Ed Miliband’s choices so far, Labour’s trajectory would suggest a campaign fought on a defence of the public services.

    Regardless of the substantive merits of protecting the public services, fighting an election using the same dividing lines as the 1980s is unlikely to have a happy ending for Labour

    Very true . But the Unions elected Ed and they are the paymasters.

    Do you SERIOUSLY think they will let Ed change course? I mean really truly believe it?

    Of course not.. So you are doomed to have a bunch of union leaders force you into minority positions where the needs of customers and patients are subsidiary to the providers.

    Not a way to reach hearts and minds.

  6. John P Reid says:

    Teddy Mcnabb, fair enough you don’t like what laobu rdid with the NHS over the last 13 years, BUT blue laoub risn’t nu laobur, yes James Purnell as wrote a couple of articles for them but Glasman was a big critic of New laobur as noted by Helen goodman and Luke akehursts, criticism of him

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