The Labour Party is losing its ability to speak outside of the narrow community of members, activists, and loyal supporters. This is not a Blairite, Brownite or New Labour obsession. Tell that to the brilliant communicators of the new left-wing movements in Europe, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos or former Greek minister Varoufakis.
Politics has always been a game, and the rules of the game do not change. To play the game you need two things: a pitch - a message to take to the electorate, and a proposal- the policies that back it up. At the moment, we have neither.
To gain a little insight into what we need to build that pitch and proposal, the Young Fabian Communications Network spoke to Stefan Stern, FT and Guardian columnist, director of the High Pay Centre and former director at the global agency Edelman on the future of left wing comms. As a disclaimer, this blog does not represent Stefan’s views, merely tries to use his conversation as a starting point to express my own. Stern, who has advised past Labour leaderships on media strategy, was at the same time despondent about the current state of the Labour Party and hopeful about its future.
Stern quoted two pieces of, admittedly anecdotal, evidence of why we need to learn how to frame our message. The pub next to Fabian HQ was overflowing with people on what was a sunny Thursday afternoon, while we were sitting inside, talking politics. The average voter, as Stefan pointed out, was out there, not inside, with us. He told of Jim Messina’s, who advised Barack Obama and David Cameron on comms, adage that the average voter only thinks about politics four minutes a week. To get into those four minutes, you need a strategy and a soundbite. It might have to be, horror of horrors, glib. And to get that strategy, the left must understand what comms is and what we need it for.
Communicating is not a peripheral activity. It is how the electorate learns about an organisation, what it stands for, where it hopes to be and how it wants to change their future. The elements of comms, media relations, direct marketing, political advertising, are what builds trust among the undecided and maintains the faith of the believers. It works both sides, convincing people who would not usually vote Labour to trust the left and showing Labour types that the party is worth fighting for.
The importance of comms is highlighted by the emotions it stirs. The revolt against modern politics is sweeping democracies around the globe. In particular, “focus group politics” has become a term used to lambast politicians. Hardly anyone knows that, Harold Wilson’s famous “White Heat of Technology” speech was trialled, in various forms, in focus groups around the country for weeks before that famous speech..
The comms function is to be an accurate conduit of information from the organisation to its audience, that is, voters. Stern was keen to emphasise that we need to first develop a sweeping, positive policy proposal that we can then communicate to the audience. There is no point in talking when you have nothing to talk about. Attlee understood it, Wilson understood it, and Tony Blair understood it.
Without a radical and coherent policy proposal, communication itself, centrism for centrism’s sake, will never be successful. Those who ignore the need for a broad set of ambitious measures ignore the lessons of Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 and of today’s Tories’ inability to build a majority the size of Thatcher’s. Continuity for continuity’s sake, technocratic administration is not a vote-winner, however well you communicate it.
But neither is an endless repetition of the policies of the past to an ever-shrinking audience of true believers. The big debates that we, the left, need to win over the next few decades – sustainable growth, the fight against inequality, climate change, perhaps universal basic income – will not be won if we are shy to make a bold case. Neither will 1970s-style left-wing ideals cut it. The roadmap is clear. Let us do what we on the left love and gather in endless sessions to formulate a policy proposal. Then get someone to boil it down into a soundbite. And let’s not be afraid to be glib about it.