Labour needs to get a script and stick to it

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.

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9 Responses to “Labour needs to get a script and stick to it”

  1. Nick says:

    It’s not sticking to the story that is the problem


    Once upon a time, in fairyland, there was no debt. The evil Tories were cutting spending for the sake of cutting spend.

    Remember the story brothers. There is no debt. None. We can have people on benefits on 172K a year. We can have our pensions. Private sector? They are rich, they can pay us.

    So for this 26K a year cap.

    What other benefits are they getting for ‘free’, that other people have to pay?

    Free education – 6,000 a sprog.
    Free NHS – 1,800-2,000 per person.
    Free Pension – because they didn’t contribute because they weren’t working.

    ie. This is the real something for nothing society.

    Total up all the benefits, and its a massive transfer of money.

    Most of that money is coming from other poor people, like those working in ASDA, and future generations.

    Here your plan is that they pay the taxes and get nothing in return.

  2. figurewizard says:

    This article makes it clear that it is not so much a script but policies that people in this country would be prepared to embrace with people in charge who are not so obviously connected with the policies that brought this country to its knees.

  3. Colin says:

    All very true, Peter – and all a waste of finger skin. There are simply too many people in the Labour Party who refuse to meet the electorate half way. For them, the party is a vehicle for pursuing their dreams of utopia and, disturbingly often, for venting their hatred of ‘toffs’. Did you read Owen’s rancid little tweet yesterday about the accents of Tory MPs? Rich coming from a man whose daddy was a full-time professional revolutionary, sent to Sheffield by his guru, Ted Grant. Really normal upbringing, that.

    This Party is beset by the same disorder as infected the Tories between 1997 and 2005: only a series of hammerings at the polls will drag the activists reluctantly back to the real world.

  4. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:


    Agreed on the position on Welfare Labour got it wrong as the Tories out-nuanced them with ease. Lack common sense, lack understanding of people, lack understanding of reality. Tories only have to maintain a steady course now and any disagreements/fallouts and discussion be limited to them and thier coalition partners. We also saw within the Parliamentary Tory party open disagreement and debate on electoral and MP recall. Due to labours utter failure to tolerate discussion and debate and fear of facing questions of any depth due to the poor quality of privilaged elected reps they cannot actually practice the changes they have stated they need to make. All they can do is practice rhetoric they have no practical capeability that permits change. They will be useless in power and have struggled badly with opposition. This was covered on the last Newsnight, Labour can talk all they want about re-founding, new generation, change, they cannot actually do it. They are paralysed and worse they have no unifying narrative to build the necessary coalition within themselves and so are all over the place as you observed, let alone bring in people from outside, in by challneging and winning arguments.

    It’s just getting weirder and weirder though it is fortunate that we have active politicians they are not elected reps) challenging the Tories outside of Parliament through protest/reports/petitions etc.

    At the moment we do not need a Labour party at the parliamentary level and as I have observed since being elected we do not need them at Local level either as they are merely helping the Tories impliment the cuts without any noticable disagreement at all. Though there are some exceptions at the local level thankfully, for the sakes of democracy.

    We will all even the Tories, just have to wait maybe a decade or fifteen years at the least for the current PLP to leave Parliament so that real Politicians with occupational skills and regional experience can address these problems until then Labour does not exist in any meaningful or relevant manner and should just lie quiet for their own sakes and take the Parliamentary (and in the case of D Milliband) all the extra money rather than bother with Political and Social conerns that they feel are beneath them until they are replaced by genuine professionals.

  5. Robert Eve says:

    That’s Labour all over.

  6. Plato says:

    A perfect summary, Peter.

    If I may also add another couple of strands – tactics and tone.

    On tactics, that’s all it is. Endless tactics, bandwagoning, populism. I thought Gordon was bad, this is worse. The nadir was the death of Bob Holness, an elderly children’s quiz show host whose passing was commemorated by the infamous Blackbusters tweet.

    What was the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition doing tweeting about this? Did he actually know Mr Holness? Apparently not.

    If he were the showbiz editor of a tabloid or TV Times, fine. Or perhaps a Radio 2 DJ. But he’s not – he’s the man tasked with holding HMG to account. I don’t care if EdM watched every edition or had his name written inside his pencil case – it looked like a Daily Mash spoof.

    Such bandwagoning looks desperate, because that’s exactly what it is = ill thought out attention seeking. This adds the square route of bugger all to Labour’s credibility, subtracts it from its leader and is trivial noise that distracts from whatever the Party is actually trying to say that might matter.

    Who can remember a single thing that happened either side of that incident? Oh yes, EdM ringing Diane Abbott whilst she was on live TV over another unpleasant Twitter gaffe.

    Another example was Jeremy Clarkson on the One Show. Why was the LotO demanding that the Prime Minister disown a Marmite TV personality who made an ill-judged joke? It was the most pathetic attempt to take a random trivial event, tie it to the PM because he lived near this person, and then get all fauxraged about it.

    I’m sorry, but no. This just looks immensely juvenile and yes – desperate. What did the PM do? He thought Mr Clarkson had said something ‘a bit silly’. Which is exactly what it was.

    These aren’t isolated incidents – they’re just a symptom of a greater problem. Does anyone really think that this intervention made Labour or its leader look anything other than totally over the top? And dare I say po-faced? Only UNITE managed to out do him which is saying something.

    Then there’s tone. It’s often shrill, shouty, negative, finger-pointing and whiny hyperbole. This has been EdM’s behaviour at far too many PMQs. It also appears to be the default tone for intvs/articles. It’s really very unattractive and sour.

    When a Labour talking-head appears – the language is frequently apocalyptic; everything is a crisis, catastrophic, appalling, disaster, incredible, insert OTT adjective here. These words have no currency any more. They’ve been flogged to death by overuse and to describe events that are no such thing.

    The moment I hear Balls or whoever start, I stop listening. It’s not a conscious decision, my subconscious just tunes me out as it knows my braincells can be occupied doing something more useful. Labour has cried wolf far too often and needs to stop.

    When HMG talks in calm, measured phrases and Labour jumps up and down like an angry teenager – I know who’s view I’m more likely to believe.

    Finally and most importantly, many of us feel that Labour actually has very little *right* to go round finger-wagging – it smacks of selective amnesia, hypocrisy and denial. It’s bad enough listening to the words, when it’s delivered with shrill self-righteous outrage – its a complete turn-off.

    It’s like being stuck in a lift with a hectoring spouse – nothing is ever good enough, and if only they’d been around everything would be so much better. Problem was – Labour was and it isn’t.

    These may seem like trivial things – but they aren’t. When a party comes across as a moralising hypocrite that refuses to accept where it went wrong – why would anyone want to give it the time of day? I won’t until it mends its ways.

  7. Oliver says:

    Interesting. For all the talk about “opposition”, there seems to be none actively being promoted here. It seems to be about basically toe-ing the Tory and right wing media line in an attempt to win floating centrist voters. How is agreeing with the Tories on all the ‘popular’ policy fronts actually ‘opposing’?

    To be honest, for a lot of the left of centre voters (who, worryingly for a supposedly left of centre party, seem to be increasingly viewed as an irrelevance or an anachronism) it just seems like (New) Labour are desperate to be in the LibDem’s place as Tory lap-poodles; a bizarre ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ scenario.

    It’s baffling. You’re “fighting for attention” from people who don’t really care (or have already drank the right wing media kool-aid) and, at the same time, ignoring those who do listened and have always listened (and who get dismissed in a reference to a peanut gallery).

    I’m beginning to agree with the general premise of a lot of recent Labour orientated missives. You *do* need to be clear about who Labour want to be. You need to admit that party isn’t a left wing party anymore, and will no longer even pretend to be, and is just one of the three Tory parties currently on offer in mainstream politics.

  8. paul barker says:

    But their is plenty of Polling to show that Labour Voters are just as divided as Labour Members. While the present Party policy of “one step left, one step right” pleases no-one it does keep your Party together while you wait for something to turn up.

  9. Rob the cripple says:

    Can I ask how much would you tap retards and cripples £68 JSA is the idea.

    But I worked for 33 years until I had my fall I now get IB 149 DLA £110 I do not get free cars and I pay my housing and council tax of £110 a week.

    I wonder if people were to have an accident they would think, benefit for children which is what really knocks up the money. and not all of us live in London, but it’s a shame labour did not build social housing.

    I can understand people being angry about benefits, better with new Labour to perhaps have concentration camps then we do not need to look at what was it one comedian said Mongs or retards or Thalidomide.

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