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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