Labour did well in the local elections and although no one thinks victory next year is inevitable, there is a sense we’re heading in the right direction. We have momentum, policies, people on the ground and our main opponents are struggling. This should be a great time for catching the the imaginations of people who are undecided.
If only we weren’t so rubbish at slogans.
I don’t know where it went wrong, the left used to have the best catchphrases, and the funniest chants. Maybe it began back in 1979, when the Tories worked out that if you want creative eye-catching ideas, you have to pay for them. ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ became the new benchmark. We’ve been trying, and failing, to catch up ever since.
Take the latest example of social media wonkery, our message to the people of Scotland: #labourno. A friend of mine pointed out that his first thought on reading this was Harry Enfield shouting ‘Oy, Labour! No!’. To me it simply read, ‘Labour? No.’
Whoever is currently coming up with the party’s snappy jingles may well be a hardworking, fair British family man or women. But unlike their hopes for a recovery, none of the mottos he or she is creating are built to last.
I blame Tony Blair. If only he’d allowed Gordon to take the credit for ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ (one of our best), then perhaps Brown wouldn’t have wasted so much time trying to top that with catchphrases that became more facile as time went on. We all knew the moment the phrase ‘no more boom and bust’ left his lips that it would come back to kick him out of office. As for ‘British jobs for British people’, the appropriation of this strapline by the BNP and then Ukip tells you everything you need to know.
Now is probably not a good time to remind you of Alistair Campbell, but one thing he did very well was come up with simple positive messages that were easy to understand. Negative campaigning sometimes works for the Tories but it never works for Labour. It backfired in the last Scottish Assembly elections, and it has been one of the few bonuses for Alex Salmond in his otherwise faltering ‘yes’ campaign.
So how about this for a new slogan? It’s what I learned over the last three or four months of campaigning locally, and it applies to everything that we have to do over the next 11 months:
Arguably one of the reasons Labour did so well in the London elections was because the capital is already partially devolved from Westminster. And the national party seems to be learning that what works for London, Wales and Scotland can work for Labour too. After years of being handed instructions from head office, there was a very real sense in my local party that we were being trusted to fight our own campaign. Once or twice I heard the cogs turning in head office, as the centralisers battled with the communitarians – but the latter won out.
Devolution works. It’s a phrase we should have been hearing hundreds of times in Scotland. Instead all we get from the no campaign are prophecies of currency meltdown, EU hostility, and David Cameron asking you to phone a Scottish friend and tell them to vote no.
Devolution was one of the first acts of Tony Blair’s government, and it’s often referred to as one of his great successes. Our inability to sound positive in Scotland is baffling to me. You devolve certain powers to local government, but some things are too big to be paid for at that level. For Scotland, if you want to finance a bigger project which would you rather draw on, the income of 5 million or 65 million? We need to remind people that the first venture capitalists to back the internet, mobile phone and satellite technology, national networks of road and rail, were governments.
This isn’t to say that the long-term solution is to spend more. Rather, the answer is to put in place a system where most of our spending is done at local level. I’m sure there are plenty more areas where Scotland can become responsible for their own finances, without having to go through the huge upheaval of total separation from the UK.
Devolution works. It’s about people at a local level being given more control over their lives – the theme that’s at the heart of Jon Cruddas’s blueprint for the future. We don’t need to argue this on the Tory ground where spending is pitted against tax cuts. It’s about spending wisely. For too long we’ve been frightened to talk about the positive benefits of government because we’re scared our enemies will say ‘same old Labour, tax and spend.’ But we have to trust that this is a bigger argument, and that people will understand our nuanced approach.
I think we’ve learned a big lesson from the Lib Dems. Their party’s success in recent years has been down to strong local representation. As soon as they signed up to the austerity package in 2010, surely knowing that their local councils would be hardest hit, they lost their massive local following.
But, in all of this, I’m not dismissing the threat of Ukip. They are the Thatcherite wing of the Tory party, and I’m old enough to remember that many people who used to support Labour ended up voting for her. The two Eds might be right when they say we need to win back these people, but I’m not sure we’ll manage it. There’s a much bigger constituency out there – the ‘don’t knows’. Some of these people have been put off politics because of expense scandals and years of costly wars. If people feel disconnected from national politics, they need to be re-engaged at a local level.
Try devolution. It works.