Labour can’t afford to look smug

7th November, 2011 4:53 pm

The Labour Party is looking a bit smug at the moment, and that’s incredibly dangerous.

The one thing less attractive to voters than an economically illiterate, dogmatic, ideological slash and burn strategy which stifles growth, is the grating sound of guffaws and I told you so’s coming from the Labour benches. Especially – and I can’t stress this enough – when a huge section of the public blames us for the economic mess the country finds itself in. We can talk all day about stagflation, growth multipliers and regional growth funds, but if we do it while looking pleased with ourselves – because we were right about the Tories messing up the economic recovery – then all we do is ensure that at best the public think “a plague on all your houses” and at worst, we end up looking smug about a crisis that many people think we caused.

Neither of those outcomes is going to deliver us a majority in 2015, whatever the polls might currently say.

This smugness over bad news was unwittingly encapsulated last week by Fiona MacTaggart MP. In a post apologising to Tory minister Chloe Smith for mocking her, MacTaggart justified her behaviour in the chamber thus:

“I had arrived feeling smug, having worked out that unemployment among women, at over one million was a record not exceeded since George Osborne was an undergraduate.”

That a Labour MP’s over-riding emotion on discovering a distressing statistic about unemployment was to feel “smug” tells us so much about the dangers of opposition. It’s easy to fall into the trap of regarding politics as entirely oppositional and confrontational. Hooray, they’re wrong, we must be right is a worrying train of thought – both presentationally and in policy terms. It’s the kind of thought that leaves the public cold – it’s an electoral dead-end too. Of course, I’m sure Fiona will have felt many other emotions too but that she’s willing to admit, in public – and in writing – that she felt “smug” about unemployment levels is a travesty.

This isn’t a problem that’s restricted to backbench members either. After PMQs last week I said:

“Recently a friend, who otherwise has little interest in politics, told me they found Ed Balls “smug”. When he smiles as he goads the PM over bad economic news, he should think about how he comes across too.”

Personally, I don’t think Ed Balls is “smug” about what’s happening to the economy, but that’s how he – and others – risk coming across. The flicker of a smile, the arching of eyebrows, the sardonic rejoinder – all conventional media tactics in ordinary times, can be fatal when people are hurting this much. They are the kind of non-specific opinion-forming presentational mistakes that we can ill-afford.

As the situation in the Eurozone turns bleaker and the government’s handling of the economy continues to produce limited results, the focus on Labour’s response is only going to intensify. All Labour MPs should remember before they speak the real lives behind statistics.

Look sombre, look angry, look furious if you must – but don’t, whatever you do, look smug.

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  • Good article, although in PMQs I find Ball’s teasing of the Tory benches amusing, it doesn’t come across quite as well to others who may indeed see his actions differently. 

  • Dave B

    “ideological slash and burn strategy which stifles growth”

    Slash and burn what?

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7330023/the-austerity-myth.thtml

  • Balls represents the nasty side of the Brown legacy.  

    All things considered, this particular shadow cabinet is one of the most unimpressive in my lifetime.  I want Labour to win the next election, but I fear there may have to be a complete turnover of personnel before that is possible.

    • Gilbert

      I often wonder what goes through the mind of somebody who
      spends their time spinning for their chosen political doctrine. My issue is not
      the particular view for I am very politically motivated, but the fact of life
      that behind all political movements there are politicians. My contempt for
      politicians knows no bounds even those of my particular leaning. An easy
      example is how Chukka has made himself look foolish by attacking tax havens whilst
      using them himself.

       

      I don’t think the Labour Party is looking smug at all, quite the converse,
      it is more lost than smug. Nobody knows what it stands for at the moment. It is
      stuck in an excuse cycle for its past economic errors that allows Ed Balls to
      occupy the shadow chancellorship. Meanwhile the high spend economies of Europe
      are set to burn and yet there are still those who advocate spending. Today
      France has put in place its own austerity measures and is discussing VAT rises,
      seen that elsewere?

      The one thing less attractive to voters than an economically illiterate,
      dogmatic, ideological spend and burn strategy which has failed again and again,
      is the grating sound of excuses from the Labour benches. Yes, a huge section of
      the public blames us for the economic mess the country finds itself in, ask
      yourself why. But the key is the recovery and the Labour lack of any coherent
      message makes our carping exactly that, carping.

      .

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    What a very brave comment Mark, I applaud you.  Particularly as your LL funders won’t like it.  Nevertheless, I think you are very intuitive in your analysis.

    • derek

      O’ Ah’ all most on the same horizontal scale as yourself……..Birds of a Feather!!!!!!

  • Anonymous

    I agree Mark, the party shouldn’t get too complacent or comfortable about being in opposition or just scoring points PMQ’s style.

    And the issues are more serious probably than have ever been in the past 30 years?

    So Labour MP’s must be seen as in touch and on the pulse; entirely on the side of ordinary people, speaking from the heart, not just abstract language or media soundbite stuff, which sounds shallow and unconvincing. Ed M actually expresses this well when he talks about “getting it.”

    I’m sorry to say, but I find Ed B’s body language off putting, despite the substance he clearly has a grasp of. He gives the impression of being over enthusiastic, as if delighted by what he is saying, no matter how sombre the topic.

    It looks egotistical and self congratulatory- I’m really sorry to say.
    It may not be though- it may just be perception.
     
    I think he should work very hard on his delivery and how he comes across.

    On the positive side, I do find him very human, and capable of accepting criticism,
    willing to admit mistakes- genuinely. So it’s a very mixed response.

    Perhaps just needs to be kept at bay a little?!

    After all, Ed M is the leader too- and others in the party need to shine also.

    It’s the opposite that seems true about Ed M; he doesn’t seem to
    “blow his own trumpet”(excuse the unfortunate expression….)

    That’s good- but I think he needs to make more of an impact on his own terms,
    and bringing out his best qualities.

    We need to get to know him better.

    Whereas Ed B looks delighted to be in the limelight, Ed M sometimes looks uncomfortable and shy. I personally warm to Ed M, but I think he needs to find ways to gain in confidence.

    I also think he has the right qualities to appeal to women and younger people.
    But needs to work on being more direct, relaxed, spontaneous, and keep up the humor.
    He seems like a genuinely nice guy, and intelligent and perceptive.

    As for the big issues, especially the economy; the danger is that the clever PR machine opposite
    could be convincing the electorate by almost hypnotic strategy; constantly repeating at the end of every sentence- “but of course, it was all Labour’s fault. That’s why we’re in this mess.”

    So they make themselves look like the “responsible ones” despite “going too far and too fast”
    on choices over the economy, and imposing ideological changes and cuts top down almost unchallenged! It’s as if we’ve all been convinced we have no choice and must accept this particular brand of medicine.

    What’s really missing though are the growth factors, and the wider picture of decimation to our public services; long term effects of mass unemployment….the list is much longer.

    Ed B is actually doing a very good job on setting out these arguments, but we need to hear much more from the party as a whole.

    As you say Mark, it’s not enough to just sit back and gloat, because it looks like we don’t have an alternative, and are being complacent and opportunistic.

    Also that policy formation needs to be rolled out fast- so people know what’s happening next and what to move on with? It’s all too vague and woolly at the moment.

    The party cannot afford to just sit and wait; it needs to be forging ahead, preparing for future government, and in constant dialogue with the public/members, not just when it suits.

    Hope I haven’t gone overboard!

    Thanks, Jo.

  • Ian

    what we need is ANGER 

    Look at this story – http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/nov/07/nhs-cancer-figures-cameron-lansley?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

    they have lied and lied to the people regarding the NHS, they are totally desperate to privatise the NHS, do we support that or not ?

    BE ANGRY about the current mess, normal people did not cause this and time to stand up against vested interests and big cash. Put the case out there that the current situation is only benefiting the elites, no need any more to be shy and coy 

    • Anonymous

      Hi Ian, it doesn’t surprise me one iota.
      (Those two look shifty there don’t they?)

      I remember these cancer statistics being bandied about some ago;
      I think comparing France to the UK.
      Then I heard a programme on R4, soon after; I think called “More or Less”
      which examined statistics like these, and especially purported by politicians.

      Basically, I think they implied here- was misrepresented and out of context.

      Haven’t we heard similar before in PMQ’s- about claims over health care from DC;
      eg targets etc?

      But how cynical and possibly manipulative to use cancer statistics,
      which is bound to get an emotive response from the public?

      Cancer victims are not political footballs;
      where is the limit on what is ethical to use in the name of point scoring?
      It could be seen as a bit desperate to use this, especially if not accurate.

      Tabs really ought to be being kept on all this, and a factual log.
      Throwaway comments and glibly used statistics, if that is the case,
      are unprofessional and morally unacceptable.

      There is a lot of territory Labour could be fighting much harder on Ian;
      but they also have to come up with credible alternatives.

      That being said, I believe Labour’s record on the NHS has been very good,
      apart from the PFI initiative.

      So to deliberately dismantle all that good work seems like madness,
      especially when it’s costing millions?

      J

      • Ian

        Jo, lets look at the lies Cameron did at PMQ’s and look at the stats they put out, problem is politcians trading stats bores people so we have to find a way of getting the message across when 80% of the press are not bothered.

        When Dan Hodges writes something against Ed then I am instinctive more pro Ed because the truth is that a lot of people are getting away with the hurt and a lot of those who need help are getting hurt.

        • Anonymous

          Hi Ian, what’s that expression about “damned lies and statistics?”

          Maybe that can seep into all mainstream party political discourse…
          but it shouldn’t. Especially over our precious public services,
          and as you say- people’s real needs and problems.

          It won’t wash in the long run with the public- who do not forget so easily.
          They value their NHS probably more highly than anything else in this country, and did not vote for a massive re organization.

          If politicians want more trust, they need to drop the PR style over substance, and stick to openness and transparency, however uncomfortable at times.

          Re Dan H Ian- I haven’t read anything about this.

          But I’ve always been supportive of Ed M anyway;
          just think far more needs to be done.

          We need some real purpose and fire in the belly,
          there’s too much of a feeling of waiting for something at the moment;
          it’s like an impasse.

          Jo

    • Anonymous

      Ian, I presume you are a member of the party;
      if you receive emails- the excellent Andy B has just sent a link for:
       “Drop the Bill” petition and campaign.

      It’s hard to work out at what point we are all at on this;
      things have gone quiet.

      I just wish this could have been done sooner;
      but maybe miracles are possible!

      Jo

  • Gilbert

    I often wonder what goes through the mind of somebody who
    spends their time spinning for their chosen political doctrine. My issue is not
    the particular view for I am very politically motivated, but the fact of life
    that behind all political movements there are politicians. My contempt for
    politicians knows no bounds even those of my particular leaning. An easy
    example is how Chukka has made himself look foolish by attacking tax havens whilst
    using them himself.

     

    I don’t think the Labour Party is looking smug at all, quite the converse,
    it is more lost than smug. Nobody knows what it stands for at the moment. It is
    stuck in an excuse cycle for its past economic errors that allows Ed Balls to
    occupy the shadow chancellorship. Meanwhile the high spend economies of Europe
    are set to burn and yet there are still those who advocate spending. Today
    France has put in place its own austerity measures and is discussing VAT rises,
    seen that elsewere?

    The one thing less attractive to voters than an economically illiterate,
    dogmatic, ideological spend and burn strategy which has failed again and again,
    is the grating sound of excuses from the Labour benches. Yes, a huge section of
    the public blames us for the economic mess the country finds itself in, ask
    yourself why. But the key is the recovery and the Labour lack of any coherent
    message makes our carping exactly that, carping.

    .

    • Anonymous

      Thatcher period  and now Blair then you had Major and Brown, now your looking around for a leader to lead and the poor things do not know whether to  kick New labour or love it. they are desperate to know what the middle class think.

  • Emmaburnell

    Completely agree.

    However, we do need to project confidence in ourselves and our plans. For some that can be a fine line. It will need to be trod carefully.

  • Timely warning to a party that is unable to keep volunteers with limited time like me supplied with reliable membership data in real time. MemberCentre currently shows 4x as many members as we have. Why? ‘cos the membership status filters are not working. So everyone who has ever been a member is popping up. With some branches meeting tomorrow, and too many members losing heart, every membership secretary needs access to the most up to date information. 

    Whoever is responsible for the national membership database IT contract should be hauled into the GS’s office first thing to explain themselves.

  • Franwhi

    Id feel smug too on three times the national wage even for a backbench MP never mind a minister – in fact I’d probably prefer to be in opposition out of the limelight as long as I got those expenses forms in on time. I’d feel smug knowing I had a gold plated pension and the only public sector one not under attack. I’d feel smug that through my salary and status my children would very probably have access to a range of educational and career choices like better universities and the right internships that other people’s kids could only dream of.  People’s faces reflect their life experiences and professional politicians look smug because they are smug and I don’t think there’s any getting away from that.  

  • Very well said. 

    This is why Alistair Darling stood out like a sore thumb at PMQs last week – a serious man talking about serious issues surrounded by point-scoring buffoons.  

  • Anonymous

    We are now seeing Tory council putting in place rules for housing, like you must be in work, and then  I hear labour councillors and MPs agreeing with this plan, I mean whom the hell do people vote for three parties who are chasing the rich and well off.

  • Fiona Mactaggart MP

    Mark, of course I do not feel smug about the level of unemployment.  I felt smug that I had found a particularly vivid way of illustrating how shocking the figure of joblessness among women is, having worked out that the last time it was as high was when George Osborne was a student.  If I was really the smug complacent oppositionalist who you portray I would never have written the apology to Chloe Smith that you quote from.  I did not discover the level of women’s unemployment.  It has been common knowledge, being published through ONS statistics for some weeks, but not in my view getting enough notice, perhaps because at present women are bearing the brunt of j0b losses unlike earlier in the recession, but we needed a vivid way of illustrating how significant the level is.  I am sad that this piece is all about how politicians “look”.  I think the art of not appearing smug in politics has to be achieved by what you do, not how you appear.  that is why as well as raising the issue of joblessness in parliament I am working with companies, colleges and the local authority in Slough to develop better ways of opening up jobs to local people and supporting them to move from unemployment into work.

  • Anonymous

    Fiona,

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond, although I must admit that there doesn’t appear to be much leeway in a sentence that begins “I had arrived feeling smug”. I am sure that you’re not complacent though – how could any of us be at a time like this? 

    With regard to how politicians “look” – appearance is a huge factor in modern politics. If we look pleased with ourselves whilst bombarded with bad news, or worse pleased with bad news, then the nuance of our message, and the importance of what we do, will be completely lost.

    In short, if politicians look smug – even when they’re not – then no amount of good work done, good policies formulated and positive outcomes achieved will help us escape from the anti-politics that pervades much of modern political discourse today.

x

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