“What should Labour do to win the next election?”
July 30, 2023
Jim Naughtie interviewed me yesterday for Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. What, he asked, should Labour do to win the next election?
Turn up, I was tempted to say. After thirteen years of austerity, failing public services, cancelled and non-existent public transport, Mr Johnson’s illegal party going and Mr Sunak’s glaring conflict of interest over tax loopholes, a Labour victory should be a racing certainty. It’s a pretty low bar. After all, the last Conservative Prime Minister was beaten by a lettuce.
But you’ve got to be concise in a broadcast interview, and Mr Naughtie hadn’t asked me about the Government’s record.
Elections are won and lost on economic competence, I said. And economic competence depends on your personal circumstances. If you’re doing the same job as last year, but your wages are falling behind prices, that’s going to hurt. If you can’t get a bus to work, it’s a real world problem.
The Conservatives will spin wedge issues, and culture wars, and attack ads. But there is an underlying reality. There is an objective truth to the pain people are feeling in Britain today. What people want are political leaders with a credible plan to fix it.
People are not stupid. They know Sir Keir keeps breaking his promises. They just dislike the Conservatives more. That’s what we saw with last week’s by-elections. Tory voters stayed at home, causing a huge swing to the Lib Dems in Somerton and Frome, and to Labour in Selby. Less reported is that Labour came fifth in Somerton, and the Lib Dems sixth in Selby. Both main parties lost their deposits.
Let’s assume, for now, the General Election is October 2024. That’s fifteen months away.
Neither party leader is particularly charismatic. So Labour needs to get some points on the board before the inevitable gaffes and wedge issues. And if the Greens get their media act together, they could poll a lot of votes in the space Labour has abandoned. The Greens might not win, but as in Uxbridge, Labour could lose.
But here’s the real issue: people don’t trust politicians because politicians don’t trust the public. Many politicians are terrified of telling the truth – in detail. Not because they are inherently dishonest – most aren’t. They use clichés and filibuster because they’re terrified of having to answer a follow up question and explain their position. And they usually don’t know – in detail – what their position is.
We’ve got ourselves into a ridiculous situation where His Majesty’s Official Opposition were calling for a General Election, while simultaneously refusing to tell you what they’d do if they won.
This is ludicrous. No entrepreneur would go to a bank without a business plan. No academic would publish a paper and hide it from peer review.
Most voters are grownups. Show them you’ve got a plan to fix something, and they’ll listen. They understand you can’t fix everything everywhere all at once. But to win their trust pointing at a problem is not enough – you must say HOW you will fix the problem.
And they’ll want to see your plan tested in debate. Let the other side challenge you. Voters will judge you not by how slick your plan sounded at first, but by the credibility of your answers to difficult questions. Hiding convinces no one.
At the moment Labour are not basing their policies on what’s needed to fix Britain, but are instead responding to the Conservatives political manoeuvres. That leaves them hugely vulnerable.
What happens if Jeremy Hunt says, “We’ve looked at the finances, and we think it makes sense to invest £30 billion a year to make Britain a leading clean energy superpower.” There is literally nothing stopping him – it makes economic sense.
Thank you, said Jim Naughtie, that’s crystal clear. He seemed surprised that a politician gave a direct and comprehensive answer to a direct question.
And that’s my plan. Between now and the Mayoral election in May 2024, I’ll be holding meetings in communities across the North East. You can come and ask me any question you like – within the bounds of public decency and propriety, of course. I hope you’ll find my answers as crystal clear as Jim Naughtie did.