Chris Bryant proved today that “shouting louder” won’t be enough for Labour

12th August, 2013 4:59 pm

At the weekend Andy Burnham called for Labour to “shout louder”. At the time I wrote that:

“it’s not about shouting louder, as Burnham suggests, because we’ve had plenty of noise from the party but precious little worth shouting about. Shouting louder about our timid plans is a recipe for failure, not victory. There needs to be a clear sense that Labour has the policies and the political will to change Britain for the better.”

Chris Bryant’s must remarked upon speech today – and the car crash media circus that has surrounded it – is a case in point. It felt like someone had decided that something needed to be said on immigration, and that this quiet summer was the time to do it. Perhaps the logic went something along the lines of ‘Labour has been too quiet on the issues that matter to working people, and people are saying that Labour needs to say more, so we’re going to speak out on immigration’. Except every time we do, we don’t always seem to have that much to say. Ed Miliband was right to say earlier this year that learning English benefits both immigrants and the wider community, but there wasn’t anything of that magnitude here.

And when a Shadow (non-cabinet) Minister makes a speech that is broadcast live on the news channels and receives wide ranging coverage afterwards – something Ed Miliband rarely gets at the best of times – you need to say something clear and worth saying. You need to make the media coverage count.

At first it looked like Bryant was taking a swipe at Next and Tesco – big retailers and big employers – over their role in immigration and employment. That sounded plausible and credible at first – a little predators and producers, sure – but a good, solid, August potboiler. But as soon as the story hit the Sunday Telegraph, the party began rowing away from it. The speech wasn’t about Tesco and Next, people were told. That’s just a small part of the speech. The Telegraph story was a conflation of different parts of the speech.

Perhaps, but if you go in hard on Tesco and Next – even tangentially – you’d better be ready, because they’re going to fight back.

So when today’s Bryant speech as delivered was different from the initial version, there was little surprise. If you’re being positive (or perhaps naive) you could say that Bryant had forced Tesco and Next to clarify their position and reflected that in his speech. The more negative (and plausible) spin is that Bryant and Labour were sat on by two big retailers after taking a pop at them. The whole thing ended farcically, and the Q&A session that followed the speech was deeply uncomfortable. Bryant was combative. The press, smelling blood, behaved likewise. It all came across quite badly. The whole thing – press interviews as well as the speech itself – probably amounts to Labour’s most awkward media day since “These strikes are wrong, at a time when negotiations are ongoing…” rang around the corridors of Westminster…

Now, I could blame this whole mess on the standard party political tactic of pre-briefing speeches to the paper – what has happened to Bryant over the past 48 hours is a classic example of what happens when that goes wrong. But that’s not really the problem here. The real problem is that the party doesn’t yet know what it’s saying, what it’s proposing or even – worryingly – what it believes on issues like immigration.

And the buck for that needs to stop at the Shadow Cabinet, and the leader.

Shouting louder when you’re not sure what you’re saying is a recipe for disaster. Labour just needs to be honest about what it believes, be clear about what it proposes and speak clearly and concisely when it has something to say.

Not louder – but clearer. We’ll sound more confident and less flustered that way…

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  • Monkey_Bach

    Nothing wrong with shouting louder when you’ve got your facts right! Eeek.

  • RAnjeh

    I remember when this site eviscerated Tony Blair for actual making some reasonable constructive criticisms (since taken on board by Ed Miliband). Ever since the speech on welfare, I can’t think of a single complimentary article about the leader or the shadow cabinet even on the big issues he has called it right. At the moment Labour’s plans are timid, but it should be cautious. Would be far worse to go into the next election with a manifesto that the public actually didn’t like, too expensive and unrealistic.

  • rekrab

    Well said Mark, Bryant was all over the place, at sixes and nines, when he should have clearly made the case for the protections of workers rights and TUPE, transfers or under takings or new employment shouldn’t be under mined, under paid nor any cut to conditions.It’s a vital reason why trade unions need to be supported and endorsed by the labour party.

    • RAnjeh

      Oh come on, the idea that all problems surrounding immigration could just be solved by building more homes, creating more jobs and giving trade unions more rights is not true. Unions are not what they were in the past, they represent a minority of the workforce.

  • CoolJHS

    Mark
    Me say you are getting more hysterical by the day, you really need to calm yourself down and stop this panicky articles. You seem to be utterly convinced that if Ed laid out the big policies then the media will fall behind Labour. I think you are massively naive to believe this from a right wing press that is gunning for Labour to fail.

    It really does not matter what the party says, it will be spun in the most negative way by the media either to embarrassed the leader or dilute the impact of the policy.

    I genuinely believe Labour’s best bet is to stick to their private strategy (which I’m sure there is one) and not allowed itself to be buffeted by the media narratives, because every time you react to one of these media bouts of criticisms of the leader you risk becoming a laughing stock; cue Gordon Brown’s troubles, which left him pretty much ineffectual.

    So take a deep breath and have belief in the party

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      ….a right wing press

      There’s nothing to stop the left wing press from making rebuttal. I am sure they do: The Guardian is extremely critical. I think the Daily Mirror is as well.

      What you perhaps don’t like is that not many people read the left wing press. But it exists, and so blaming the right wing press seems to me to be ignoring the more fundamental problem that left wing policies are not very popular with the public.

      The BBC seems neutral to me.

      Roger McC – who is very forthright, and why not – does make a good point that the public are often not fair-minded or balanced, and often lazy in their lack of critical thinking. But this is life, and if this reality is unfavourable to Labour, then surely the need is to find an intelligent way around it, rather than to whine about it.

      Life is very often unfair. It is a completely separate matter, but the tories complain about the inbuilt advantage Labour has (5% or maybe even more) by unequal constituencies. So be it. They have the media, Labour benefits from effectively gerrymandered core constituencies. There is nothing this side of the next election that can be done about either fact, so both parties need to get on and to deal with the facts in front of them.

  • RogerMcC

    Seriously did nobody in Chris’s office run this past USDAW? – a Labour affilated union which just happens to represent a very large percentage of Tesco employees and is an excellent position to verify whether in fact immigrants are being exploited?

  • JoeDM

    The Tories and UKIP will be sending Chris Bryant Thank You cards for excellent publicity for their concerns about uncontrolled immigration.

  • Brumanuensis

    Bryant’s speech had a number of good points, but as Roger says, the failure to consult USDAW is inexplicable and in the end it’s not clear that the treatment he was decrying was in any way related to immigration.

    When will the Shadow Cabinet accept that immigration is not an issue Labour can win on? A basic principle of asymmetric warfare applies: never fight on your opponent’s strongest ground.

    • RogerMcC

      Which only applies if you are in fact fighting asymmetrically (which generally means that you are massively outclassed and only by guerrilla warfare, terrorism, sabotage etc can you fight at all without being annihilated).

      And if you are strong enough to not have to fight asymmetrically then to win the war you have to apply the Napoleonic principle of picking a target (usually the capital city) so important that it has to be defended to the death and then destroy their main fighting force when it is concentrated there.

      Pessimistic although I am not even I think we’re quite in asymmetric territory yet – the next election is still just about winnable using conventional means.

      And offering a real in-out referendum on the EU would in fact largely neutralise immigration as an issue for a generation – leave and we have control over our borders again, stay and nobody can plausibly complain (although of course they always will).

  • Amber_Star

    Labour were being blamed for EU immigration. We tried to defend ourselves. It cut as much ice as a soap hacksaw. So Chris Bryant set a hare running. Suddenly business is having to defend their policy instead of us doing it for them. Had Chris Bryant given a polished, controversy free performance, the story would’ve received zero coverage in the media. Whether he made his faux pas deliberately or not, it has worked out well enough because ‘the narrative’ from UKIP & the Tories has been changed. It’s now Tesco, Next etc. saying that they couldn’t get local workers & had to employ EU immigrants instead of Labour being blamed for all the EU immigration.

    • Quiet_Sceptic

      Hang on, if you accept the explanation that local workers won’t take the jobs then it is a problem for Labour because it’s essentially the right-wing/Tory argument that jobs are available but people are choosing not to take them, choosing to stay on benefits.

      I find that argument a little weak if the jobs are being filled through a foreign recruitment agency.

      It also fails to consider the wages the employer is offering – ‘we can’t fill the vacancies’ should always come appended with ‘at the wages we were offering’.

      • Amber_Star

        In my opinion it does the opposite; it begs the question as to why Tesco, Next etc. uses agencies & will not recruit via the local job centre when e.g. Costa can get 1700 applications from local people for one barista job.

  • markfergusonuk

    Keep calm and carry on? Is that what you mean?

    I don’t imagine Labour is ever going to win the support of the media, but the public are never going to give Labour a fair hearing until we have something to say.

    • CoolJHS

      Not exactly that because there is clearly a need to engage the public more robustly but responding to every bit of Labour bashing in the press is pretty futile in my view. What is going to win the next election is the ground war and not the media war against Labour, so building that small army at this stage is for more important than worrying about the media obsession with Ed Milliband because they don’t particularly like him

    • Hugh

      Why don’t you imagine Labour is “ever” going to win the support of the media when it had that support for at least ten of the last 20 years?

  • markfergusonuk

    You should read more carefully. I’ve praised Ed Miliband several times when he’s done the right thing. I was critical of Blair because of what his criticism was (that Labour should be dispassionate) not because he made a criticism. You can read the piece here – http://labourlist.org/2013/04/sorry-tony-but-being-dispassionate-would-be-a-recipe-for-bloodless-technocracy/

    • RAnjeh

      Sorry, Mark, but it is an observation made by many. Since the welfare speech? On big issues on sticking to existing spending plans, welfare reform, change in the union link etc, there has been a lot criticism. As it happens, I agree with some of it like your letter to Ed and your article on Crosby and Messina (I loved it). It’s just an observation.

  • rekrab

    Sounds like you’ve lost your faith in the brotherhood mate! I find the idea and practice of zero hour contracts sickening, I’m concerned when someone who may work for one company for 23 months can be dismissed without good reason and no fair hearing, I’m dismayed that employers are diluted their health and safety requirements.
    RAnjeh, Go and study the Vion case, Broxburn or countless others, there simply isn’t the harmony of singing workers you proclaim?

    • RAnjeh

      Ha, brotherhood. Zero hour contracts should be banned and instead workers should have a right to flexible working times. But let’s not pretend they are huge mass membership organisations.

  • Chilbaldi

    They represent over 7 million workers in the UK. While not the majority of the workforce, clearly not a tiny minority. Total number of people of working age in the UK is usually estimated at about half the total population.

    Really disappointing when Labour members do unions down. The debate surrounding union influence in the party is completely different from the debate about the usefulness or relevance of the unions. And just because x union is led by a loon doesn’t mean that a majority of its members agree with him.

    They are a valuable resource, and Labour members would do well to remember this, and consider why we exist as a political party.

    Also worth remembering that there are infinitely more trade unionists than members of political parties.

    • RAnjeh

      I am not doing them down, I think more people should join unions as it matters but let’s not pretend that they speak for all workers. 1 in 5 workers are part of a trade union and that is very low. Many of the low paid workers with unscrupulous bosses who use foreign labour are not in unions therefore I doubt giving unions more powers would make much of a difference.

  • Chilbaldi

    they keep telling us at CLP GCs and conferences “wait and see”, “we’ve got a plan, you wait”. I’m really not sure. We do need to see it at some point soon.

  • So they shouldn’t do anything but carry on with their secret plan which you’re not even sure exists! What on earth are you going on about?

    • rekrab

      Clearly there isn’t any motion about what labour will do on policy? other than follow conservative spending plans.

      I guess you favour the idea of exploitation and John Reid’s phrasing of E.U. workers?

    • CoolJHS

      That is just ridiculous, who says they should do nothing?, I’m saying we should not run around like headless chickens over a media campaign but you are free to do that

  • I agree with your last statement but too many would rather be ideologically pure.

  • Ken Adams

    What stood out was Mr
    Bryant’s admission that the British government are no longer in
    control of theses things, if they were they would not need to badger
    private companies into breaking EU equality laws by offering jobs to
    British workers before “foreigners”.

    This loss of control is
    becoming ever more evident and will continue whilst we remain in the
    EU. Hence we have a paradox, Political parties who have supported
    these EU rules and are adamant that they want to remain in the EU,
    act as if they are surprised at the effects of being in the EU. This
    means either they are stupid or they think we are.

  • markfergusonuk

    An observation made by many? Ok then…

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