Labour will only make headway once it is able to move the debate onto its favoured territory, rather than allowing the Tories to set the agenda. By ZOE WILLIAMS
Funny thing about the prime minister’s roadmap: he mentions golf and beauticians; touches schools, universities and colleges; makes a huge number of fine distinctions between the types of outdoor socialising we might be allowed and whether or not we can sit down on a bench while we do them; but nothing at all on May’s local elections. It was confirmed last week that these are bound to take place, having been postponed from 2020, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Just kidding, of course the stakes could be higher than 127 unitary, district and borough councils and 13 elected mayors. But elections are to polling what comedy is to drama: the chance to forget what people tell you about how they feel. Did you get the laugh? Did you get their vote?
Typically, nobody wants to heave their entire war machine into action for local elections, so both the main parties fall back on downplaying their own chances, so that almost any result can be refracted through the prism of triumph. It’s a kind of competitive self-sledging, “you think you’re going to do badly? Wait til you see the mediocre results that I can pull out of the bag”. It’s a mystery that the approach has never migrated to the sporting arena.
Unsurprisingly, then, Labour is briefing that they don’t expect a tremendous bounce, and the polling seems to bear them out – after a few months of steadily climbing fortunes, they’ve topped out at the Cameron-Miliband tango. Which one has pulled two points ahead, to reach 41%? Which is in the 38 doldrums? Hang on, is that the same as last week, or is it a mirror image? Is it possible that there is a stubborn, mischievous 5% of Britons just sitting on YouGov panels, changing their minds for fun?
Surveying the deadlock, observers and analysts in the opposition’s corner have spirited debates that are all variations on a theme: what should they say on Brexit, on freedom of movement, on family, flag and patriotism, on the government’s handling of the Covid crisis?
The focus groups all point one way, the fundamental values of the Labour movement point another. I will go to my grave believing that if a focus group doesn’t like your message, you have to find a better way to say it, rather than ditch it; and that nothing is more corrosive to electoral success than trying to espouse values that people know, fundamentally, you don’t hold.
Yet whoever’s right and wrong on this – and it’s an argument as old as time, or at least as old as Tony Blair and the Philip Gould years – we’re all making the same mistake. We’re thinking of politics as a game of chess – those of a narcissistic bent may call it five-dimensional chess, but regular chess covers it: a set of strategic goals which will unfold according to your design, for which you have a plan B if they are interrupted. In fact, it’s more like a game of Korfball.
It’s a Dutch game; it looks a bit like netball, a bit like basketball, but the USP is that you can’t take a shot until you’re in your own killzone. You can cause a lot of trouble in your enemy’s killzone, no question, but you won’t score and your spectators will get bored. Truthfully, most of today’s hot button issues are in the Conservatives’ killzone: you can make the case that their corona response has been incompetent, you can say they should resign or demure to say so, but you cannot show where and how you would have excelled them. To complain about Brexit, meanwhile, simply reminds people of the government’s victory, along with the fact that the opposition voted for it.
Labour’s killzone, meanwhile, is in the territory of rebuilding from the rubble, not with a shopping list of policies and how much they may or may not cost, but on the certainty that ambition can be limitless if you choose your enemies without fear. It is actually far more important to say “workplace insecurity is unacceptable” than to say “27p on the minimum wage”; better to say “it is completely wrong for children to go hungry” than “remove the two-child cap on universal credit”.
The Conservative agenda thrives when it can conjure one simple and obliterative answer that will solve everything. Labour is the opposite: it wins when it invites broad and diverse constituencies to camp on a problem, and ignites everyone’s passion to solve it.
Keir Starmer’s speech on the economy last week was measured in all the usual ways: how was its delivery? (It was quite sober and serious). How was the language? (Erm… quite serious, a little bit sober). What is a community bond, anyway? (It is an entirely new model of investing, away from faceless financialisation, towards creating palpable social good – but that won’t feel like a game-changer to the millions without savings).
Yet the important thing is, it shifted the debate onto Labour’s natural turf, where it may hit or miss but will at least always be shooting. It did not tangle them up again in the noodle soup of the Conservative hindbrain, where they have to choose whether they love their country or hate racism, and whichever way they parse it, they’ll always be a little too woke.
Whether this arrived in time to have a decisive effect in May is unclear; it takes time for the lens of the nation’s attention to shift to a new precinct, and if, as seems likely, the elections coincide with a first vaccination for all UK adults, that will deliver a huge amount of goodwill for the Conservatives. But the Labour Party is on its way to scoring for itself, which will, at the very least, make everything more interesting to watch.
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