A few months after Labour’s devastating defeat in May 2010, a former Blairite aide – John McTernan, who now works for the Australian PM – made a rather startling admission at an event organised to discuss the party’s “Southern Discomfort”.
He said New Labour had utterly failed to convince the public on the issue of immigration, despite its hard talk. Furthermore, he added, the heightened anti-immigration rhetoric of Brown years alienated white voters in Metropolitan areas and ethnic minority voters too.
The admission was surprising to me because it came from an aide who worked for a Prime Minister who took no prisoners on triangulation.
Welfare, immigration and now the deficit have always been tough areas for Labour MPs – caught between trying to appeal to floating voters and keeping their core voters on side. No wonder they try and avoid these discussions.
Tony Blair’s triangulation required ignoring cries from his own base (solved by assuming ‘they have nowhere else to go’) and moving firmly to the right on the economy, crime, welfare and immigration. And it worked for a bit too.
But triangulation has a limited shelf-life. Firstly, Labour’s moves to the right didn’t placate the Tories – they simply moved even further right to differentiate themselves. On immigration they argued for an unfeasible (as they’re finding out now) cap; on welfare they are currently trying to deny even disabled people basic benefits; on the deficit they keep denying their harsh cuts are ruining the economy. This forces Labour to fight even more with its base in order to move further right, and so on.
Secondly, voters have become much more cynical in recent years and pay less attention to current affairs. This means any triangulation – especially when you’re in opposition – requires even bigger symbolic statements and fights. Despite their tough talk while in power, Labour trailed significantly behind the Conservatives on immigration and even cutting the deficit going into the election.
In other words, you can talk tough but the electorate is so cynical that only extreme positions now get noticed. The only way Labour could break through on welfare and deficit reduction now is to start cheering and call for more when Tories demand cuts – which is simply unfeasible.
So what should Labour do? It cannot ignore its credibility gap with floating voters on some issues forever. For a start it could learn from Obama’s failures.
How voters interpret the public debate was recently articulated well by Nate Silver at the New York Times. If both sides are vociferously squabbling over an issue, and the truth is difficult to ascertain, voters usually conform to their prejudices or see it as a typical partisan squabble and ignore it. Our media focuses more on reporting the ‘he said, she said’ arguments and perpetuates that cycle:
“However, if one side makes its point unambiguously, while the other side hedges and does not seem to have its story straight, the public may conclude that the truth lies on the side of the group that has articulated its case more vigorously. This dynamic may have worked to the Democrats’ disadvantage during the health care debates of 2009 and 2010.”
It also worked to Obama’s disadvantage during the debt-ceiling debates, when Republicans unambiguously set themselves as the party intent on cutting spending while Obama was forced into a corner – trying to sound credible on cutting debt while maintaining spending for key social security programs.
The lessons for Ed Miliband’s team should be this: the time for triangulation is over because the benefits are marginal.
First, concentrate on areas where you can win (jobs, economic growth) and have clearly defined themes supplemented with big, bold ideas.
Second, use those big ideas and specific bold policies to force the discussion on to your territory (to his credit, Ed has managed this with both ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘responsible capitalism’) and keep hammering hard with strong, unambiguous messages.
Obama managed it – forcing the Republicans into a losing fight over the Payroll Tax, and are now reaping the rewards. And third – come up with innovative solutions that actually tackle the problems on areas where you are weak, while keeping your own base on side. Don’t just talk tough – or keep saying you will “listen to people’s concerns” – and hope that will deal with the credibility gap.
For example: at the start of the year Liam Byrne made a big splash with his ‘back to Beveridge’ speech on welfare. Can anyone actually remember a new, innovative policy proposal he made?
That’s the Labour party’s problem right there.