What is Labour’s message on public service reform?

by Atul Hatwal

Step back for a moment. There’s lots going on in politics with the welfare and health reform debates raging, and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Now, ask yourself this question :– what’s Labour’s narrative on the Tories?

What is the common thread that runs through Labour’s positions on these two issues; ties them together and explains to voters why the Tories are wrong.

In politics it’s easy to lurch from issue to issue and get sucked into the detail of the day to day battle. Like a primary school game of football there’s a scrum of politicos, journalists, bloggers and tweeters charging around the Westminster pitch en masse chasing the day’s story.

But out there in the real world, voters aren’t players in the micro-drama of news cycle politics. They aren’t interested in the minutiae that concerns the political class, life’s too short. They are spectators, with at best a passing interest in the game on the pitch.

The majority will have opinions on issues like health or welfare reform but what matters most is how a party’s various policies combine in a to give a clear idea of what they stand for, and equally importantly, why the other side are the wrong choice.

The big picture.

So back to the question, what’s Labour’s narrative to frame the Tory picture?

In a word: confused.

On welfare reform, there have been two defining stories in the past couple of months. First the benefit cap, and then workfare. On both counts Labour has been dragged from a position of reasoned scepticism to full blooded opposition by the political equivalent of a baying mob.

Regardless of polling that consistently shows 50-60% of the public backing both the cap and workfare, Labour’s position has been defined by the most vocal and angry elements opposing the welfare reform bill on the grounds that the Tories are uncaring ideologues punishing the weakest in society.

On health reform, Labour has purposefully led the charge, at the head of the broadest possible coalition.

The role of the NHS in the public’s affections is such that any attempt at reform would likely be fraught, let alone when implemented à la Lansley. Here the Labour attack has again been the Tories are ideologues, this time bringing chaos to the NHS.

Unlike on welfare, the polls back the party on health with 50% of the public agreeing that the government should drop the bill.

Branding the Tories as ideological zealots in both cases is central to Labour’s argument. It’s a powerful charge. A party of Thatcherite dogmatists is a very different proposition to the compassionate family-next-door variety of Conservatism pitched at the last election by David Cameron

But there’s a problem. The next part of the narrative, the part which sets out the consequences of Tory zealotry is different for each of the issues.

For welfare reform, the Tories’ extremism leads to the poor being punished. For health it’s about competence and a wrecked service.

One is a moral judgement , the other a managerial critique. One focuses on the victims, the other on the process.

In both cases, on welfare and health reform, there is a righteous rage running through the left in opposing the government.  The question for the Labour leadership is whether they can reason through the political emotion to understand why the party message on welfare reform is failing, while on health it is succeeding.

Unless the message on welfare reform can be corrected, not only will Labour continue to lag on this individual issue, the party’s overall message will be scrambled. The public will hear Labour calling the Tories ideologues and Thatcherites, but with little clear sense of why this is bad.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut

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4 Responses to “What is Labour’s message on public service reform?”

  1. swatantra says:

    Atul poses an important question: Who is the ideologue, Us or Them?
    But the Public want to see any Govt do the right thing.

  2. Joe Roberts says:

    I am generally sceptical of the suggestion that we should be outlining our own policies at this stage – we’re more than three years away from an election and don’t want to offer too many hostages to fortune. However, I think this issue may be an exception and we should get some ideas of our own out there.

    We also need to identify the relevant stakeholder groups and work closely with them – part of the reason we have been successful getting our message over about the NHS is because almost all the professional bodies have gone public against the bill.

    What we need to avoid at all costs is the hysterical ‘war on the poor’ rhetoric that is the instinctive, knee-jerk response of some Labour people. We need our message to be calm, rational and constructive.

    Anger is often seen as a positive force in politics, one that can help to motivate and involve masses of people. Actually it’s a destructive force, and the people it destroys are those who feel it. The Tea Party in America is a perfect case in point. It is driven by the anger of the Republican grassroots against a President they hate. It has mobilised a huge movement but in the process it has dragged the Republican Party so far to the right that Obama is now ahead in the polls by double figures, despite the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

  3. Oliver says:

    Unless there’s going to a vote of no confidence and snap election later on in the year, I’m not sure there’s any need for a fully coherent message right now. The Tories didn’t really seem to have a real plan, other than saying ‘we’ll match New Labour’s spending’, until quite late. Their ‘message’ before the election barely relates to what’s happening now, anyway – a case in point is the NHS.

    Also, as the political playing field is undoubtedly going to shift massively over the next 6 months (a lot of those baying for cuts will suddenly realise that it’s going to impact them, too – not just the “spongers” and the “spackers”) anything Labour say now might be meaningless in 6 months and there will other things to concentrate on.

    As someone who identifies with the left (and left of New Labour) all I’d ask for is some actual opposition from the Official Opposition.

  4. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Problem is few people understand public feeling, its now four years since the banking crash, loads of people (these are very important and its amazing how quickly Labour Party people forget “people” and do not include them in their discourse) know the main Parties do not give a fig about them. Intolerance breeds intolerance and Labour has continually conceeded ground instead of finding that all important narrative that would actually ring as meaningful in peoples minds. Lack of empathy in the Labour Party which is cought between Lefties wanting to undo and challenge (sometimes rightly) privatization whilst filling their pockets as people struggle and suffer and Right Wingers who want to continue to New Labour Programme of privatization and hugging the City whilst filling their pockets whilst people struggle and suffer. it has been most amusing identifying “moralists” on the Left and Right of the Party whose morality ends whenever the public are mentioned. You will never win power except as a slightly different second rate version of the Tories unless you change and develop trust with the electorate or you can get used to a long time out of power. This cold PR style (“we think we’re tough” when the public have already seen how cowardly we are attitude in the PLp has to end) must end. The people are seperating out now as the middle class retreat and become, along with many poor intolerant and blame others with pure anger for their plight. Labour has also forgotton one of the most fundamental rules when winning over big financial backers (who want to give to Labour not Progress or other Charity/pressure Group/Trust etc) as well. Fun to watch the very arrogance, lack of morality prevent Labour making any “progress” in the polls as MPs in the Parliamentary Party see their “aspirations” begin to melt away lol. You can blame Ed if you like (doesn’t matter which one) its a crises of bad culture and horrendously blatent corruption that only Party hacks at the “top” (lol) and MPs that are prevening Labour, nobody else.

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