To: Peter Mandelson
From: Daniel Finkelstein
Re: What Labour should do now
I was, naturally, flattered to be informed that you would like me to provide you with a memo of advice on how Labour should cope with its predicament. As I explained to your assistant, I do not have much of a history of helping out the leadership of the Labour party. He said that this did not matter, as neither did the Prime Minister.
As for you and me, we haven’t spoken much these past 20 years. So I am relieved to discover that you regard such long periods of silence as perfectly natural in a friendship.
In 1997, as you may possibly recall, we were on opposite sides of a campaign. I was working for John Major, you for Tony Blair. You, ahem, won. But I learned things from that defeat which might be helpful to you now.
Before I set out my ideas, we had better deal with Gordon Brown. Advising Labour on how to improve its position without advising it to get rid of Mr Brown is like advising someone how to deal with their cheesy feet problem without advising them to stop wearing shoes made out of brie.
However, I was warned that this was not a subject that can be raised with you, without the presence of qualified medical personnel. So I will move on.
Here is my advice:
1. It’s not about them, it’s about you. An enormous amount of Labour’s time is being devoted to establishing dividing lines with the Conservatives. It is being wasted.
You cannot define the Conservatives, only they can do that. You can only define yourself. But it’s worse than that — your dividing lines are worse than just a waste of time. Your attempt to establish them is actually damaging you.
When people watch Labour politicians talking about Tories, they are making judgments about Labour, not about the Tories. They are asking themselves — does this person seem pleasant? Is he interested in the things I am interested in? Has he got things in proportion? Does he care about the country or just his political point?
Your dividing lines and attempt to define David Cameron as a right-wing toff make you look as if you have things out of proportion, only care about politics and may not be nice. In other words, you are squandering what has often been a Labour advantage — that you care, that you are likeable.
You’ve got to stop worrying about the Conservatives and trying to make them lose — you can’t do much about it. Start thinking about yourself, and what you can do to improve your showing. Which means understanding…
2. The electorate is never wrong. It is, I can see, frustrating that voters do not react well to Labour listing its achievements. You all feel that your period in office is being judged unfairly. But, really, you need to understand that your feelings don’t matter.
You will not win the next election fighting on your record, no matter how good your articulation of that record may be. The voters want change, and you have to make them feel as though you can provide that change. This means talking about the future and acknowledging past mistakes, even when you are not sure if you agree that they were errors.
One of the best Labour strategists, your brilliant friend Philip Gould, coined a phrase in his book The Unfinished Revolution. He said that after the 1980s, Labour had to ‘concede and move on’. Now you have to do this again. But this, of course, means…
3. You have to decide what to move on to. You have a sharp strategic dilemma and you have to resolve it.
It seems unlikely that you can win the next election. I remember, back in 1997, standing outside John Major’s office with Andrew Robb, the shrewd Australian political operator, ready to go in and tell him what the political position was. I pressed Andrew to give me his view before we went into the Cabinet room. ‘You’re stuffed,’ he said tersely. Only he used a more characteristically Australian word than stuffed. This is your position now.
Your best bet if you want to minimise the defeat may be to try simply to mobilise your base vote. Tack left, redistribute income, keep spending, work with the unions, big up public sector workers, use traditional Labour rhetoric. This also allows you to argue that you have drawn a line under new Labour’s past.
Yet while this may be the best tactic, strategically it would be a disaster. It certainly was for the Tories. You might win more seats, but you would move away from the centre, where elections are won. And it might take you years to get back.
The trouble is that sticking with new Labour and the centre will prove a hard road. Responsible government, hard choices on spending, incremental reform to public services, trying to make change sound exciting by delivering earnest lectures about it.
I don’t envy you this choice. Whatever you decide, however, don’t forget that…
4. Voters support parties because of how they make them feel about themselves. The traditional political view is that parties need a unique selling proposition. You need to offer the electorate hard policy.
And, of course, hard policy has its place. But people also buy products because they make them feel good. Volkswagen became the car that makes people feel independent. And people buy L’Oréal because it makes them feel worth it.
People voted for Margaret Thatcher because she made them feel they were doing good for the country. They were helping hard-working people and curing the British disease, not just netting a tax cut. And people felt great about voting for Tony Blair in 1997.
So you need to talk more about Labour’s values, about the sort of country you are trying to create. Make people feel great about being on your side. Make them feel it’s something that good, caring people do. If you just tell them that you will protect them from the evil Tories, you will get nowhere.
And there is no point just saying this, because…
5. Change isn’t something you champion, it is something you are. This is the most difficult advice for you to act upon. At the same time, it is the most obvious lesson from the rise of David Cameron.
Your election campaign needs its spokesmen to be people who, with their story, embody your strategy. Cameron’s modernisation only works because people see him as its authentic representative. You have to find people who similarly personify your message.
Alan Johnson is a start. But there has to be someone else too — doesn’t there? And one more thing…
6. Don’t leave the election until the last minute. Because you are so far behind, you hope something will come up. And that if you keep going, David Cameron will be exposed. It won’t work out like that. The longer you go on, the more annoyed people are going to be. If I could change one thing about 1997, it would be to have gone to the country earlier.
I hope that’s helpful. But can I add one piece of personal advice to you as a Blairite? You need to start thinking now about how to revive your project after a defeat.
I heard James Purnell on television talking about the ideas of Amartya Sen. I really don’t think (surprising this, coming from me) that salvation lies with such wonkishness. The solution is organisational.
You need to go back to Tony Blair’s idea of soft merger with the Liberal Democrats, through alliances. It is absurd for you to be splitting centre-left support with people whose views you share.
Fixing the party is a miserable job, and I don’t envy what faces you. But I can offer one consolation — you will find this task much easier with a Tory government in place.
Daniel Finkelstein is chief leader writer and columnist for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 26, 2009