You don’t especially need a ‘focus group’ to tell you as many different views as you have participants. “Big data”, whilst flavour of the month, is not necessarily ‘best’. A recurrent theme that Labour regular voters find themselves returning to is the question of why bother voting Labour, when they simply seem to be a “Tory Lite”.
A member of any political party is worth his or her own weight in gold. Patrick O’Flynn, Chief Political Correspondent for the “Daily Express”, recently nailed his colours in the UKIP mast. In his recent speech to party members, O’Flynn’s love of his Party was obvious. A particularly effective line in his speech, which was more than a pithy soundbite, was his remark, “We are not a party of Little England – we are a party of Great Britain.” This in marketing terms known as ‘strategic positioning’, when you think about what your product is offering that is so distinct from other people on the market.
And that’s as far as I wish to push the ‘lessons from marketing’ narrative. Many grassroots members of Labour are totally exasperated about the ‘new lick of paint’ approach to politics, perhaps embodied by Mandelson’s rebrand of “New Labour” or Cameron’s reference to Ronseal. The practical problem that Ed Miliband faces, nonetheless, is that his ‘crisis of confidence’ could be a problem fundamentally with the song (Labour party policy) or the singer (him). As for the singer, attention has been given to his onstage demeanour and singing style, as this might seem like a worthy train of enquiry. The wait for policy details has been exasperating. One suspects there might be less criticism of the singer if the song were better defined. For example, the method of delivery of low-paid workers from Europe undercutting domestic English workers might have been more successful if Miliband had a song with clearly defined lyrics concerning a living wage in the first place.
When you ask people ‘what the perceived problem is for which the solution is the Conservative Party’, some people churlishly say ‘The Labour Party’. This is not as trivial as it first seems, as the idea of bin liners not being evacuated from the streets of our cities is deeply entrenched in the minds of some voters above a certain age. Some voters have genuine concerns about the Unions, and the relationship of the Labour Party with the Unions. Labour is in a position of being damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. It can have wish to have a dialogue with the voters on hedge funds leading English NHS privatisation behind closed doors, but will find itself ever-frustrated if the media refuse to cover the issue at all.
It could be that Labour has simply lost a sense of its values. The argument that Labour lost the plot, and changed from a socialist party to a social democratic party, is often instantaneously rebutted by the argument that ‘But Tony Blair was the best election-winning machine which Labour ever had.” To which point, many invariably stipulate that Labour began to lose its core support as early as 2002/3, long before Labour finally relinquished office in 2010.
This perceived lack of clarity is linked to Ed Miliband’s performance as a leader. Miliband is quite good doing ‘reactive’, but Miliband often seems at his best when responding to a crisis, whether this is phone hacking or horse meat. The UK does seem to have been a perpetual state of crisis since the General Election of 2010, but Miliband does impressively appear to have ‘called the right shots’. This does not make up for a lack of policy, or ‘vision’. The usual argument that ‘we are two years away from the election’ merely confirms the idea that Labour is in no particularly hurry to outline a clear vision of settled values and principles on which it can progress. It instead confirms a notion of Labour making policy ‘on the hoof’, whether this is, for example, a ‘response’ to a ‘buy to let’ housing policy or a ‘response’ of vans which are allegedly racist.
There is possibly no single more significant policy plank than the UK economy over which there is genuine concern as to whether Labour is following or leading. It is possible that the economy is making a feeble recovery, over two years after it was also feebly recovering in 2010. It is possible that this new recovery is being fuelled by a temporary housing boom in London. There are many events which can be identified as to why the UK economy has been given a turboboost in the opposite direction by the Coalition. Ed Balls’ policy is perceived as ‘cutting not as deep, and not as fast’, and yet Balls seems fully signed up to a path of austerity. Balls seems as if he wishes to ‘have his cake and eat it’, criticising the Coalition’s economic policy while simultaneously supporting it.
If the economy does go into a sustained recovery, it is possible that the Conservatives will receive a ‘bounce’ for being more trusted on the economy. Voting data do actually provide that both the Conservatives and Labour Party are equally mistrusted on the economy. Labour seems to have been wishing to act ‘butch’ on the economy, hoping that voters will ‘learn to love’ Labour on the economy. This doesn’t add up. The Labour Party, in the style of an overcomplicated Oxford tutorial or Cambridge supervision, have failed overwhelmingly unconvincingly to establish a need for a £860 billion bailout. This failure means that the Conservatives still have some mileage with the fraudulent message, “Would you return the keys to the people who crashed the car?”, blaming the State for the global financial crash not the bankers in the City.
Labour’s problems are further compounded in that it doesn’t seem to offer anything much distinctive. Labour has become the Samsung to the Conservatives’ Apple (or vice versa). Labour supports PFI and Nicholson’s “efficiency savings”. The Conservatives do. Labour appears to support generally free schools or Academies, partly depending on what day it is. The Conservatives do. Labour seems to support acting ‘tough’ on illegal immigrants. The Conservatives do. Labour seems up for ‘modernising’ public services, and privatising what it can from them. The Conservatives do.
The truth is that politics, like the market which it has tried to copy, has become alarmingly homogenised. There is an illusion of choice, but there is a cigarette paper now currently between the main English political parties. When will Labour reverse “the Bedroom Tax”? And so it goes on. The frustration with Ed Miliband is as contrived as is the frustration with David Cameron. It’s a general malaise about the political process, though people generally are very articulate and passionate about many societal issues conversely. Labour’s approach appears to be to ‘play safe’ so that people think it’s ‘safe’ to vote Labour, rather than offering anything exciting or distinctive. If it pursues this strategy, it is more likely to find itself in ‘hung parliament’ territory rather than having a large working majority. But Tony Blair had a huge majority in 2007, and his legacy is still being fiercely debated.