Time for some nostalgia marketing for Labour

by Peter Goddard

We are living, as the old Chinese curse has it, in interesting times. Greece is on the verge of exiting the Euro, in Spain, Bankia has to deny rumours of a run, the News International debacle just keeps on going. Short of Rebecca’s horses eating each other, the signs that the old certainties no longer apply couldn’t get much worse.

The Tories are playing directly into this narrative of unease with their programme of cuts, cuts and more cuts. And this week they have further identified themselves with the sense of national uncertainty and fear with their plans to make sacking employees easer.

This close identification between the Tories and personal insecurity for so many people provides Labour with an opportunity to offer something different.

Leaving it to finer minds to identify the policies that might take the country through this traumatic period and into happier times, there are a range of things we can do in terms of messaging and presentation to maximise the attractiveness of the party during a period like this.

It is a widely-agreed truth in marketing that in times of hardship or recession, nostalgia becomes a powerful ally.

As Martin Lindstrom says in his book, Brandwashing, “In the face of insecurity or uncertainty about the future, we want nothing more than to revert to a more stable time.”

Marketers have been acting on this for some time already. Back in 2009 the New York Times reported that, “As the recession continues taking its toll, marketers are trying to tap into fond memories to help sell what few products shoppers are still buying.”

Certainly things have not got any better since then.

Knowing this, what could Labour do?

First and foremost, it can stop reinventing itself, having ‘conversations’ in which nobody is really listening and obsessing about exactly what shade of what colour the Labour party might be today.

Secondly, it can start remembering, celebrating and reminding people of the substantial achievements of the Labour party, locating today’s party as the evolution of the party for people who stand up for the less fortunate.

The NHS. The sacrosanct-to-all-voters NHS that Labour built is the easiest example to point to, but there is much, much more.  The post-war social housing revolution, equalities legislation and most recently, rebuilding this country’s schools and hospitals after generations of neglect.

Practically, this can be achieved without mechanical repetition in speeches. Labour doesn’t have to trap itself in a retelling of the past to make its point.

What is required is some retro show don’t tell.

Party literature can carry reprints of ‘classic’ Labour material of times gone by, or archive photos of the people who saw a country economically divided and said ‘no’.

To chime with the comfort of nostalgia, harking back to the early 2000s is probably a little too recent. The fondest memories are always rooted in childhood. For the generation now reaching its social prime, in their 40s, the safest, most stable place is their childhood in the late 1960s and 1970s.

It might seem paradoxical for a decade like the 1970s to be cast in such a positive light. It has been much maligned for many years, but a quick glance through the TV schedules demonstrates the power of this time.

There’s a full-blown reappraisal of the decade in Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC retrospective, the 1970s, ably supported by Sounds of the Seventies and ever-running rotations of the exploits of Rigsby, Fletcher and the Ronnies.

For all the political turmoil in this decade, it was also a time when the promise of the 1960s was fulfilled for many: their first home, colour TVs and consumer luxuries like washing machines, all became common place.

Labour did much it can be proud of in these years, from the  Equal Pay act of 1976 to the expansion of the Open University to shepherding the economy through some of its most parlous years back into growth.

Despite the conventional wisdom of those who remain trapped in denial about the 1970s, nostalgia for this time brings a deep and abiding connection. Tapping into it would give Labour an emotional heart it seems to lack at the moment.

This doesn’t require Ed Milliband to grow a moustache and smoke a pipe, interesting though that might be. In fact as an approach, it needn’t conflict with the modern world. Facebook pages, websites and YouTube are perfect for showcasing old party political broadcasts, campaigns and commitments.

Yes, they will be fun and funny. Yes, they will be laughed at as it is highly unlikely they have aged well. But they will be shared and the effect of harnessing that nostalgia and identification with a tradition of combating unearned privilege, will be felt.

One example: seeing footage of Jack Dromey’s efforts standing with the Asian women on the Grunwick picket line in 1977 bestows a depth and honesty on Labour’s shadow housing minister that many of his younger colleagues conspicuously lack.

Of course, these proposals are essentially window dressing and likely to have little more than a marginal effect when practiced in isolation.

In an ideal world, this approach to messaging will be the wrapping for a set of policies in the same vein, promised and delivered by a party genuinely committed to a return to Labour values.

But in the meantime, when it comes to communicating Labour’s message, it is time to abandon New Labour’s allergy to the past and re-discover the best of our recent history.

In these troubled times, it’s what voters are already doing.

Peter Goddard is a sales and marketing consultant

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7 Responses to “Time for some nostalgia marketing for Labour”

  1. rob says:

    But in the meantime, when it comes to communicating Labour’s message, it is time to abandon New Labour’s allergy to the past and re-discover the best of our recent history.

    In these troubled times, it’s what voters are already doing.

    What we see are the new labour Progress group rally call for the new labour cause, then I see the call for the Blair touch.

    I suspect people in the UK see very little difference between the parties these days, the argument vote for me because I can do this or that, well why did you not do it when you were in power.

    How many council houses did you build. How much of the NHS did you flog off, were you going to sell the Royal mail yes.

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    There is some potential value to the ‘no fault’ dismissal premise. Not every body has an aptitude for every job, so as an employer you may have to drop somebody because they can’t manage, but that is usually not their fault, so they should not be penalised if they have to go back on benefits.
    Equally, as an employee you should not be penalised because you are not suited for a particular occupation; if you gave it a go but could n’t do it, that’s nobody’s fault, itt’s just a part of life.
    My mate had to sack someone when it was discovered that he could not cope with heights; it was a vital part of the work, but the worker in question had never been confronted with operating at heights so he was in no position to know that he could not cope until he gave it a shot. It’s not unreasonable to discover that you’re afraid of working 50 foot off the ground but he was still denied benefits for ages and that’s simply not fair.
    In the dim and distant days when I used to employ people, the nature of the work was such that they were self-employed people and you hired them by the day. If they could n’t cut it – or even if they just did n’t fit in with the rest of the team – they just did n’t get hired again, but most businesses can’t operate like that,

  3. paul barker says:

    So this is what labour (is it still New ) is reduced to , boasting about things it did in the 1940s ?

  4. peter g says:

    Indeed Paul, by completely failing to understand the article’s point, you could indeed draw that conclusion.

    Uglyfatbloke, fair comment but regardless of the rights and wrongs, this still feeds the larger narrative of employment uncertainty.

  5. Rallan says:

    Does the modern Labour Party looks good and/or representative when compared to the post-war Labour Party?

  6. uglyfatbloke says:

    Dominic Sandbrook has been entertaining, but more than a little easy-going on the big figures of the 1970s. No mention of the sordid grasping dishonesty (and unsuccessful dishonesty at that) of Harold Wilson, the blinding incompetence of Healey and the sheer bullying arrogance of Callaghan, the blustering ineffectivenss of heath or the criminality of Thorpe.
    The 1970s economy acheived growth (in fits and starts) despite Callaghan, Healey and Wilson, not because of them.

    Peter G., I’d like to see more unemployment uncertainty, but in a carefully targetted manner, starting with most of the front benches on both sides in the Commons and every single party hack in the Lords.
    I’d be happy to see more cuts and less protectionsim in certain areas.
    When I went to University a decade ago I just could not get my head round how little arts academics do and how much they cost.
    I can’t get my head round spending billions on arms that the military would n’t choose in order to maintain employemnt in particular areas – it would be cheaper by far to give the workers concerned pay-offs at a million quid apiece.
    As for the bloody Olympics…….billions spent on making idiot politicians and rich athletes feel important.
    And we could all benefit from some carefully-chosen public sector employment cuts; in my local authority there is an education HQ officer (advisors and upwards) for every 70 children in the region; they are all on good salaries but most of them have no actual work to do, so they spend their time getting in the way of those who do.

  7. uglyfatbloke says:

    The post-war PLP was a good deal more patrician than tradition would have us believe; there was even a general! It probably had more ‘traditional upper-class’ people than today, but there wer virtually no examples of the modern politcal class – that is to say people from comfortable backgrounds who have never had jobs, just office posts in politics. You could make the same point about the tories or, to a lesser extent, the lib-dems.
    The near-absence of ‘political class’ types meant that it was more possible for people from ‘normal’ backgrounds to get on in politics so in that sense the PLP was much more representative than the clutch of comfortable semi-academic careerists we have today….I say ‘ciomfortable semi-academic ‘ because all of them are middle-class graduates, but none of them take their degree in anything that’s difficult or challenging.
    It is easy to romanticise the 1945 government – welfare state etc.- but we should n’t get carried away; they were miserably bad at foreign policy and economic policy, but they do compare well with most of what we’ve had since.

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