Tom Lehrer, Folk Song Army
A long-running discussion has been had both in the Labour Party and on the left more widely about the whether the UK has a “progressive majority”. While there are voices on both sides of the argument who lack nuance, generally, it’s quite clear that the answer is yes on some things, maybe on others, definitely not on others. What is more contentious than the basic political question of who has the biggest gang, is the broader question of how treat those who are not instinctively, tribally and committed to being on your side.
Politics is complicated. Answers that might seem simple and self-evident to you and I, will appear illogical and even frightening to someone coming from a different perspective. This doesn’t make those people wrong or evil. It means they have – at some point – been convinced by the opposite arguments.
Labour people I talk to simply don’t understand how the Government are not failing more given all that they are destroying and getting
wrong. But we don’t realise that a lot of what we fight, we also fight the public. On key issues like welfare reform or responses to public disorder for example, many of my friends on the left – Labour or otherwise – are a long, long way removed from where the public tell us they are on these issues.
At the moment, there seem to be two prevalent schools of thought within Labour on how we deal with those beyond our tribe. There are those who will trample over their fellow Labour members, their beliefs and values to align with the policies of the opposition. Who say that Labour can only win as Tories who can manage being a Tory a little more efficiently. Equally, there are those who shun anyone not 100% onside on every issue. Who will spurn forever anyone of the left who accepts that one basic tenet of democracy is a compromise with the people.
Previously I have criticised those who spurn those outside of our tribe who count themselves of the Left. I stand by that. We need passion and ideology and those that will accept the advances of the Labour Party should be welcomed. Activists are a rare and precious resource.
But equally, I criticise those who would have Labour be an unelectable organisation of ideological purity. That instead of wondering about how to talk to those who question the values we hold dear and might listen to answers, will spurn them as “Tories” for even asking. Labour must learn to compromise with the electorate where we can find a space which suits both our values and theirs. We must learn to treat the electorate’s questing of policy as opportunities not simply to lecture but to listen and to understand why they fear what we want. To understand how to convince the electorate of our ideas and their worth, we must show we are listening to the fears they articulate to us – on welfare, on immigration, on the deficit.
When I worked in sales, I learned that the most important thing to do was listen. That a sales pitch should be 75% the customer talking (far too few sales people are capable of this, which is a shame for everyone who ever has to suffer through a bad pitch). We have to let the electorate tell us what it is that they really want. We then have to make sure that we can match as much of our pitch to that offer as possible. That doesn’t mean changing the essential product. That’s not possible. But it does mean looking at how we emphasise the values of that product. Too much of political communication is about us telling the electorate what we’d like to do/save/scrap. We fetishise policies when we should glorify outcomes. It’s the outcomes that the public notice.If we retreat into an ideological comfort zone, we will appear smug – as Mark has articulated so well. We need to be able to make our arguments and make them well. But the way we make our arguments is important too.
The Labour Party are due the fight of our lives at the next election. We have a soft poll lead and two vicious opponents who may not always be on each other’s side, but will certainly be against us. We cannot simply sing our good songs to cheer each other up and let the right win all the battles. We need to find a tune we can get the electorate to hum along with.