A new story for Labour

by Tom Albrighton 16 July 2015 Storytelling, Tone of voice

Farewell then, Ed Miliband. Six months before Labour’s abject beasting in the general election, I blogged about you needing a new story to tell the electorate. I was far from alone in thinking that, but as May 5 approached, Guardian readers were sucked into an inexorable vortex of Milifandom. Not only did we like you, we decided, but everyone else did too. Labour were going to win!

Boy, were we ever wrong – as wrong as we’d been in 1992, and with much the same feeling of deflation. Inevitably, Ed’s outta there, but the problem remains: how to craft a Labour message that will speak to voters again, and achieve what the party has only done once in the last 50 years: win an election without Tony Blair.

Of course, the problem’s much bigger than that. Do progressive politics still have a place – any place – in today’s political and economic landscape? I’m not qualified to answer, so here I’m taking the narrow view of the storyteller – that is, the marketer, the spin doctor. (So if that offends you, stop reading now.)

What went wrong?

Storytelling is persuasive as a marketing tool because it builds credibility, memorability and understanding. In politics specifically, it can make complex ideas seem simple; intractable problems seem solvable; and leaders seem more human. Crucially, it can position an individual’s vote as a way to continue a trajectory that’s already established – to turn the page and keep hearing a story that is still being told.

In the 2015 election, the Tories stuck to the narrative they’d been consistently using since 2010, retooling it slightly to accommodate their failure to reach their own deficit-reduction targets: this is all Labour’s fault. Now we started hearing about ‘Labour’s recession’. Through its profligacy, Tories said, Labour had tanked the economy; only now, through careful stewardship, was it beginning to recover. What’s more, if you trust Labour with the Union, they’ll throw it away in an unholy alliance with the SNP.

This was a classic small-C conservative story of protection and restoration: trust us to keep safe what you value, and restore what you’ve lost. It was also profoundly questionable, but accuracy, or even believability, are not necessarily attributes of a strong story. As psychologists know, people will always prefer a simple explanation they heard first –  and if you repeat something often enough, it becomes the truth, making it even easier to manipulate them into defending the status quo.

If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation. But it felt like Labour missed chance after chance to confront and close down the Tories’ narrative so it could start telling its own. Perennially defensive, always on the back foot, Labour felt like a challenger brand that hadn’t yet found its own voice – or, more scarily, a former market leader that was on the way out.

Two months on from the election, Labour has duly descended into a labyrinth of uncertainty, unsure who or what it stands for (or even against), and who should lead it. The problem was aptly summed up by John Harris recently in the Guardian:

In the first instance, parties start to revive themselves by mastering such slippery things as mood, tone and emotion, before starting to tell a convincing story about the country. And at the risk of sending some people into a fit of fury, that story needs to be about a lot more than such current Labour themes as the deficit, what it is to be “pro-business”, or which party may or may not speak for “workers”.

Using some themes from my post on what really makes a good story (see image below), I’d like to look in more detail at what went wrong, and how it could be put right.

What-really-makes-a-good-story-200px

Click to view post and full-size infographic

Drama

What Labour really needed was a simple story that voters would buy into. Like the Tory story, it would make voting for the storyteller seem like a logical, natural and desirable ending. Instead, as so often in the past, the Tories came across as the natural party of government, while voting Labour seemed like a weird, deviant act that you had to be cajoled into.

The best, most convincing stories have ups and downs; censor the ‘bad bits’ and your story sounds suspect. For Labour, the most obvious downs were the financial crash – whoever caused it – and the 2010 election, along with Gordon Brown’s hapless leadership and Tony Blair’s warmongering.

A story that included these events would have an arc encompassing what storyteller Tim Rich calls ‘challenge, action and transformation’, with the ‘action’ in this case being a much-needed phase of reflection and renewal. Sadly, none of this made it into the party’s narrative for 2015, either before or after the election. Instead, Labour allowed the Tories to co-opt its ‘downs’ and weave them into their own narrative.

One of the most prominent examples, Ed Miliband failing to acknowledge the importance of the deficit, was a simple error of memory. But the failure ran deeper than that. It came from Ed’s optimistic determination to leave the past behind and focus on the future, which was far too easily interpreted as wilful ignorance, or a refusal to accept ‘responsibility’. In an era of apparently endless austerity, a story that said ‘it’s all good’ just wouldn’t wash.

Trust in the teller

Another problem for the left is that it doesn’t produce enough colourful characters – or, when it does, voters don’t warm to them. For every Tony Benn, grudgingly acknowledged as a decent sort after decades on the back benches, there seem to be ten Boris Johnsons, Pim Fortuyns or Sarah Palins, breezing into the public’s affection on the strength of a kooky look, a bunch of ‘say the unsayable’ quotes and the odd gimmicky photo opp.

Trust in figures like these is rooted in their perceived ‘realness’: the sense that no-one so unguarded could be duplicitous. Dangerously, this sentiment is only reinforced by gaffes and faux pas, which would not be forgiven in a more managerial politician but somehow go to show that people like Nigel Farage are human, just like us.

Lacking such a figure, how dearly we – and Ed, and Jeremy Corbyn, and lefty losers right back to John Smith and Michael Foot – would love it to be all about the policies. But there’s no escaping personality. And I don’t remember that many Labourites complaining when Tony Blair’s charisma swept aside a moribund Tory administration in 1997.

In 2015, we seriously underestimated how much David Cameron had grown in stature – just as we had with John Major in 1992. At the start of his term, Cameron was fairly callow, not to say a bit of a fool (remember ‘Calm down, dear’?). But since then, he’s grown into the role of the patrician, One Nation(ish) Tory, and assumed the authority of the incumbent. Lies about the NHS aside, he’d pretty much done what he’d promised, evil though it was. And that translated into voter trust.

Miliband, on the other hand, started off from a place of mistrust by ‘betraying’ his brother for the leadership. Now, some would say that doesn’t matter, and that voters aren’t stupid. I say no, they’re not – but it does matter even so. When we form our view of people, we use all the evidence to hand, personal and professional, to get a rounded view. To do otherwise would be irrational, not rational. Otherwise people would fill jobs by choosing between CVs, and never bother with interviews.

It’s a shame David Miliband has ruled himself out of the leadership, and not just because of his superior competence and statesmanship. His return would evoke ‘once and future king’ and ‘prince over the water’ narratives that have deep resonance for both the English and the Scots, as well as anyone who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings.

Relatability

Tory talk of ‘hardworking families’ and reducing the deficit chimes with people’s self-images as worthy strivers and prudent householders. It’s a reductive view of the economy and the world, but it makes sense in the context of people’s lived experience. Selfish and simplistic it may be, but it’s relatable. People get it.

Contrast that with the facepalm-inducing folly of the aptly nicknamed ‘Edstone’ – Miliband’s risible stone tablet inscribed with six ‘pledges’ that were so nebulous as to be almost meaningless. (Also, as any copywriter could have told him, six is an inherently crap number – it’s got to be three, five or seven.) As Anthony Tasgal has noted, the stone had no unifying narrative or structure, so it came across as a bitty, abstract list of policy bullet-points, which is what it was. What a missed opportunity to craft a concise, quotable story that could take on a life of its own.

On top of that, the whole affair was ludicrously biblical. Instead of coming across like Moses on the mountain, Ed might have been better to emulate someone like Noah, diligently working for what’s right. And a humble handwritten to-do list – as opposed to, say, a sodding great concrete slab – might have been more relatable for those who live and work by such lists every day. A gesture that could have been resonant and relatable ended up arrogant and aloof.

What’s in a name?

On a related theme, it’s interesting to see commentators (including John Harris, who I quoted above) raise the issue of the party’s name. When your brand is an old-fashioned word for work, it’s hardly surprising that you’re associated with old-fashioned ideas about work. And the connotations of ‘Labour’ are nearly all negative: heaviness, difficulty, fatigue. (Childbirth, too, I suppose – but the tough, demanding part of it, not the joy of holding the newborn.)

It struck me recently that all the other major parties have contracted versions of their name that don’t carry any literal meaning (‘Tories’, ‘Lib Dems’, ‘UKIP’). Once established, such names become blank slates that brand values can be written on, like ‘IBM’ or ‘Nike’. ‘New Labour’ was inspired, but it had a limited shelf-life, which has duly expired. Whatever story Labour wants to tell, it needs to think about what goes on the title page, or people will never even start reading.

Simplicity

On the face of it, Labour’s message in 2015 was relatively simple: ‘a recovery for the many, not the few’. But once you got behind the slogan, it dissolved into a dustcloud of micro-policies (exemplified by the Edstone) that geeky analysts had determined would play well with the electorate. The result was an exercise in behavioural button-pushing and a complete failure to connect at a deeper level.

I think the key to both relatability and simplicity is to ditch the abstract language and start talking about people’s everyday concerns: to position Labour as the party of real life.

For Cameron’s stuffy, upper-class cabinet, authority often comes at the cost of warmth and compassion, leaving them looking remote and aloof in the face of, for example, Sayeeda Warsi going rogue on Israel. So it’s intriguing, if not electrifying, to hear Liz Kendall come out and say that what ‘most people want’ is ‘somewhere to live, something to do, something to look forward to and someone to love’.

Right-wing she may be, but without lapsing into Thatcherism, Kendall’s simple words affirm the self-evident truth that people want things for themselves – and they certainly don’t aspire to be part of Ed Miliband’s abstract, patronising ‘many’. Her sentiment is nicely inclusive – your ‘something to do’ could be volunteering for the NHS or managing a hedge fund. It also contrasts sharply with the Tories’ officious fussing about distant concerns like Europe and the deficit, and in my view defines the space that Labour needs to make its own. We can only hope that, five or 10 years from now, people are ready for a warmer, more inclusive type of politics.

The feminisation of our culture, and our politics, is an urgent project. But for marketers, who of course see things in less elevated terms, having a female leader would surely be a no-brainer. It’s not a question of ‘women vote for women’ – although many surely would – but rather of differentiation. In a world dominated by the ‘male, pale and stale’, a female voice has got to be an advantage.

Will anything change? As I write, the signs are not good. The frontrunners in Labour’s leadership race come across like regional sales managers at a team-building day, while Corbyn recalls a polytechnic sociology lecturer who might be able to get you an eighth. None, publicly at least, shows signs of having learned the key lesson of the Blair years: that politics is a question of imagination and sensegiving as much as policy and pragmatism. But if they do take it to heart, Labour could yet have a new story to tell.

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  • Rod Hirsch

    Just a thought, but maybe Labour lost the election because it didn’t have anything to offer the electorate, not because it couldn’t get its story right. And maybe the best way to get a compassionate centrist party is to disband Labour and encourage its former members to join the Conservative party.

  • As clearly stated at the top, the focus of this piece is the marketing of the product, not the product itself.

    As for your suggestion, it’s clearly a winner. I’ve no doubt that former Labour members would be clamouring to join a party that shares absolutely none of their principles. And the current situation of the Lib Dems amply demonstrates how rosy everything turns out when centrists attempt to bring compassion to a right-wing party.

  • Rod Hirsch

    Hi Tom. No offence intended; my comment was despairing, rather than snarky, and I do understand the purpose of the piece (which I enjoyed). It was more a response to the fact that all we seem to have (or want) is centrist parties; and that if that’s the case, change from within can be a powerful tactic. We know coalition doesn’t work – so if you can’t beat them, join them and beat them another way.

  • No worries Rod – sorry I got the wrong end of the stick. Personally I think some sort of Lib-Lab linkup, under a new name (as I argue above) could well be the way forward. Assuming, of course, that two irrelevant parties can be combined into a relevant one, as opposed to one even more irrelevant one…