I’ve had two overarching complaints about the Labour leadership since September: that it focuses too much on foreign policy; and that it ain’t all too great at media management and messaging. The first complaint has been, at least today, quelled. Jeremy’s Fabian conference speech was almost everything I had initially hoped for from his leadership: putting economic radicalism at the heart of our domestic policy. So when he talked about universal childcare, integrating health and social care, a living wage, banning executives from earning salaries vastly greater than their employees, a huge housebuilding programme, nationalising the rails and democratising energy companies, I finally woke up to a window on my Labour Party advent calendar that didn’t make me cry.
When Labour is not involved in arguments over Trident or NATO, or dealing with Eastenders-esque reshuffles, we can and do unite. We all believe in an economy that works for the many -mind the party line- and though we may disagree on the means to that end, many will have been excited and even relieved about the domestic policy agenda Corbyn laid out this morning.
But the second worry still remains: messaging. For while we all remain in this bubble where we watch Fabian conference speeches (and I say that as a Fabian!), most of the country would not have heard a word uttered. We may now have an agenda -or the start of one- that we want to sell on the doorstep, but it’s now up to Those On High to deliver the goods on messaging that can be given to Shadow Ministers on Newsnight and make the entrancing buzzwords to be repeated on the 10 o’clock News. The good news is that we actually had a day focused on economic issues -yay!- so at least some sights are set on what offers we can make on the economy.
But those policy offers will not mean much without taking into consideration two things: economic trust and competence; and our purpose. It’s clear for the second our purpose is for a more equal society, and there’s certainly no microwaves being sold here, but it needs a catch-all, go-to description that we almost hit but never stuck with in One Nation. Though we can’t go back to it, and it was abandoned too readily, One Nation was clever because it was all-encompassing, impossible to argue with, and nicked right from the Tories. So much so that Cameron is on record for saying such cross-dressing must never be allowed to happen again. So make it happen! Get a catchphrase for this domestic agenda that snatches from the Tories and stick to it.
The former is a much harder egg to crack, of course, but a part of the solution is the messaging. Putting our offers on the table is meaningless, saying ‘a Labour government would…’ is meaningless, if people will not listen. If people on the doorstep are gonna ask ‘how will you pay for it?’. Once a voter says this to you, you’re ultimately done for. It should come as a natural assumption that they would trust us to know to the extent it doesn’t need asking. That’s why the Tories could promise £8bn for the NHS out of bloody nowhere in the election; because it’s natural to think of the Tories as trustworthy with your tax money. We need that natural assumption that universal childcare could be implemented by Labour without the world imploding, because currently the country thinks we caused Goldman Sachs to go bust. Our first hurdle is thus mitigating this. There’s four possible approaches.
The first is to ignore it and hope it goes away. Miliband tried and failed catastrophically.
The second would be to apologise for it. But this won’t be accepted, I feel, either by the public or by the party.
The third would be to have a line and stick to it in a way Ed never did: “the banks caused the crisis.”, though it may be too late and ultimately futile.
The fourth would be to instead paint the Tories as incompetent, to untangle instead of our incompetence myth, the Tories’ competence one. For, they truly are, literally, very, incredibly, incompetent. They’re just very exceptional at politics.
I reckon the only way this would work is by pairing the third and fourth into one buzz..line. “The banks caused the crisis and the Tories policies will allow another to happen”. Anything to monopolise security and increase uncertainty for a future under the Tories. It’d put us in a good position if there is another crash -and global markets are none too healthy- if we stick to a line like this instead of going back off a tangent on divisive distractions.
We can also factor in our domestic agenda from today into this narrative. As I’ve written before, we need more than altruism as the seller for this domestic agenda, we need it to be entirely about security for families. “Our policies will secure you and your family against another crisis” we should say. “Our policies will secure your family’s future in uncertain times”. Our stricter rules for the City will help prevent a crisis, and our housebuilding programme will secure your child’s future. Without investing now, we will lose out in the future. The Tories are already borrowing more than any Labour government, we should say, and investment is at an all time low. That puts our growth, we should repeat, in a precarious place at a precarious time for the global economy.
Snatching away security would be the ultimate Tory cross-dressing, and it’s necessary if we want to be heard. There’s no shortcuts here. There is no way we can merely hope this domestic agenda-setting speech is watched 63 million times on Youtube. We have to set the agenda ourselves. We have to put our buzzwords out there and make sure they are the careful and correct words we need to disarm prevailing Tory narratives.
So now we have a focus on the domestic -and I hope for the sake of the party and party unity that is where we keep our focus-, we have to immediately make the domestic agenda put forward at the Fabian conference today both known and make people think we can, in fact, make it happen. We had a good day, I think, so let’s try and have a few more.