Friday, 7 August 2015

Great advice, showing exactly what Labour shouldn't do.

Labour was warned in plenty of time, we’re told, that it was heading for a drubbing at the polls. According to the Guardian, James Morris, chief pollster to the party under Ed Miliband, reported that:

There were three very clear threshold issues where the party needs to show a new approach: immigration, benefits and the deficit/economy.

On the first of these, Morris provided useful detail:

Labour is seen as having consistently ignored English people’s views on immigration. A Labour leader who wants to show change has to show that they understand that. This is not just an issue for lost working-class voters – it was central to Middle England and a major concern for Lib Dems. Out of the 40 people who took part in the groups only one person mounted any sort of defence of a relatively open policy on immigration.

The concerns were broad. Among C2s and Ds there was a particular concern about competition from eastern European migrants for work (esp in the trades). There was a universal concern about benefits and the provision of services, with immigrants sending child benefit abroad symbolic of the issue. Just as common was a cultural concern. This was partly about people adopting British culture when they come here and partly about standing up for British and in particular English traditions and English people. There was a strong sense that people who are born and bred in England should be prioritised.

So according to Morris we lost because, among other things, we failed to accommodate the fact that a great many people in Middle England feel their jobs, or even their cultural identity, threatened by the influx of immigrants to this country.

A lot of people issue this kind of warning. It usually takes the form “we have to learn to take voters’ concerns about immigration seriously.” That’s actually code: what it means is that we have to adopt those concerns as our own, to make ourselves attractive to voters who feel them.

What about “cultural concern”? This was perhaps best voiced by the politician who complained about finding himself in a train carriage without a single other English speaker in it. The same politician also pointed out that few of us would want Romanian neighbours.

The politician who made those two comments was Nigel Farage, leader of far-right UKIP. It concerns me that a Labour Party pollster might be recommending moving closer to the kinds of positions that Farage espouses.

Personally, I always find a charm in being surrounded by people speaking other languages, since it shows what a magnet Britain can be at its best. As for Romanian neighbours, I’m delighted with out Polish neighbours and I have a close and much appreciated Romanian friend. People who share Farage’s view of foreigners, far from being emulated, should perhaps be encouraged to be more tolerant and enlightened.

Incidentally, doing that is what we call leadership. Adopting their views is followership. What Labour needs to do above all else is learn to lead. It used to know what that meant, and it badly needs to find out again.

In any case, on the subject of leadership, what Morris fails to take into account is that large swaths of voters are unmoved by policy. We have to have policies in place, because they are our pledges of what we shall do – or at least attempt to do – if put into office. But people who are genuinely interested in policy are primarily insiders and a relative small band of others who follow politics with enthusiasm.

As we know, the vast majority of the electorate is completely switched off from politics, and that means switched off from policies.

Ed Miliband: likeable, bright, honest
But not perceived as a Prime Minister. That was the problem, not policy

What will enthuse those people is a sense of confidence, and better still inspiration, in the leadership of the party. They have to feel that they can see the leader in Downing Street. I doubt many of the policies that Ed Miliband promoted cost him votes; his inability to eat a bacon roll in front of the cameras, or to remember the key passages of a crucial speech, did far more to shake the confidence of huge numbers who therefore thought Cameron was simply more suitable.

No amount of triangulation, of selection of carefully crafted policies that will please the maximum number of people for most of the time, will address that problem. For that we need a person who, with or without justification, will be trusted with the keys of number 10.

So my view is simple. If we lose an election because we refuse to compromise on matters of fundamental principle, for instance because we will simply not accommodate the views on immigrants peddled by a Farage, then fair enough. There’s a majority against us on a matter on which we can’t budge.

We need to be convinced that on such questions, we really won’t ever budge, whatever the siren voices may be saying, even the siren voices of pollsters.

If, however, we lose because we have saddled ourselves with a leader who simply can’t connect with ordinary people, then that’s an altogether different matter. That’s our fault. It’s dumb and unforgivable.

Now that, James Morris, is the problem we need to fix. Policy is secondary. And compromising on principles is intolerable.

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