Wednesday, 27 May 2015

To win the left needs to get its act together and frame the political debate

Today in the Guardian, Owen Jones is urging the left to 'speak Spanish', and he makes a valid point - talk to people in terms they can understand and you have a much better chance of winning an election. He uses Podemos in Spain as an example of this plain speaking and quotes Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias:
'..... you should listen when Iglesias speaks. Last year, he delivered a speech berating the traditional left’s failure to communicate. Leftwing students never spoke to “normal people”, he said, and treated working-class people as though “they were from another planet”'
Although it is true that some on the left inhabit a world dominated by Marxist-speak there have been some really great communicators on the left. The best I can remember is Tony Benn who used to talk straightforwardly with conviction about the things that the vast majority of voters really care about - jobs, education and access to decent housing and healthcare. The right-wing media recognised this and that is why they demonised him. Bernie Sanders, the US Senator is another good example. We should study these people and learn from them.

Use of plain language and simple arguments has long been a strength of the right in Western politics, that is why they have been so dominant in recent decades. As I've posted before they have created a simple but 'convincing' 'free' market narrative which has been hugely successful, particularly in the absence of a coherent alternative from the left. I've posted about this lack of alternative before and how I think we can deal with it.

The key issue however, more important than plain-speaking, is framing the debate, and this was succinctly nailed by George Monbiot in his excellent Guardian piece a few weeks before Labour's crushing defeat:
"Labour has allowed the Conservatives to frame its politics. Frames are the mental structures through which we perceive the world. The dominant Tory frame, constructed and polished across seven years by its skilled cabinet makers, is that the all-important issue is the deficit. The financial crisis, it claims, was caused not by the banks but by irresponsible government spending, for which the only cure is austerity." (my italics)
The key thing here is the frame. Use of language is all important and through their dominant narrative the control the debate by use of frames such as 'free' market and tax cuts - i.e. market=good and taxes=bad. We hear these frames every day of our lives and they help to condition how people think about the world they live in.

So how does the 'left' overcome this and get on the road to electoral success? These are the steps we need to take:
  1. Confidence: talk about green politics/socialism as if you believe in it - which you do - and believe its possible. Politicians on the right are perfectly confident to talk about their ideas
  2. Create the narrative: keep it simple but tell the story of the political alternative and repeat over and over again
  3. Build alternative frames: create alternative frames, for example - tax security or tax insurance to describe the benefits of paying taxes - turn a negative into a positive
  4. Control the political agenda: choose the political battlefield you want to fight on - don't fight on territory chosen by them - they are simply wrong.
If you want to know I don't think the Labour Party is capable of doing this. The sad sight of the leadership contenders kow-towing to neoliberalism in defeat mean we can expect nothing positive from them in the next five years. They have already accepted that the Tories were right.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A huge failure for Labour but will they learn anything from it?

I ought to be pleased. The Green Party had a good 2015 general election: a record number of candidates; a much increased majority for Caroline Lucas; four second places, and membership is still growing, having just passed 63,000. I'm also looking forwards to some good results in the local elections. But its hard to celebrate knowing the Tories have a majority that will probably last for five years, which is plenty of time for them to wreak yet more havoc to welfare and public services and destroy more lives in the process.

The big story of election night was the battering of the Labour Party which was hit by a combination of factors producing the perfect storm. So what went wrong? I think these were the main issues:
  1. Failure to provide a clear narrative to the electorate: it was never that obvious what Labour were offering and most of the 'offers' such as ending non-dom status came far too late in the day. Crucially they abandoned their real base support in the working class, even to the extent of allowing Ukip, of all people, to steal many thousands of Labour voters.Its not longer certain what Labour stand for except perhaps a watered down version of  what the Tories are giving us - neoliberal austerity-lite.
  2. Failure to nail the Tory lies about economic incompetence: Labour never seriously challenged the Tory narrative that they 'overspent' and crashed the economy. They allowed the Tories to assume the mantle of economic competence even though Osborne's record is lamentable.
  3. Making a complete hash of the Scottish referendum: the rot set in for Scottish Labour long before the referendum, but the negative Better Together campaign, in which Alastair Darling seemed little more than a front-man for the Tories and the English establishment, did huge damage. Even when the warning lights were flashing after the 55-45 no result, Labour chose to ignore them and took their voters for granted, conceded political territory to the SNP, and got wiped out in the process.
  4.  Failure of leadership: Although Ed Miliband had his moments on Syria and Leveson he was too timid by half and failed to set out a strong narrative and strategy for Labour to win.
  5. Keir Hardie - great Scottish Labour politician - no doubt spinning in his grave after the 2015 general election result
So what should Labour do? Firstly they must learn the lessons from this defeat. Under Blair and New Labour the party was hollowed out. Members were reduced to being spectators at stage-managed conferences. They need to regroup and reform the party making it much more accountable to members. They need to ditch the sectarianism and be open to co-operation with other left parties and they must embrace electoral reform. I'm not sure they will do any of these things and are just as likely to end up tearing themselves apart. Every Party has a shelf life - maybe this is the beginning of the end for Labour - something I predicted a couple of years ago.