“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…