Nine lessons for Miliband

What is the question to which “vote Labour” is the answer?

It's time for Ed Miliband to come back with a bang. Illustration: Nick Hayes
Ed Miliband has plenty to ponder over the summer. Labour is ahead in the opinion polls but not by enough to instil confidence of victory. MPs are mostly loyal to their leader but they feel his ship is becalmed. They fear the prospects of a majority will drift from view if something doesn’t change. But what? There is no shortage of advice, not all of it helpful, much of it contradictory. But from countless conversations with figures across the party, some common themes have emerged.
 

1. Tell a story

 
Behind the old cliché about politicians needing a “narrative” lies a deep psychological truth. People are emotional animals and their trust is won more easily with a story than with a statistic. David Cameron has a neat parable: once upon a time there was a wicked King Gordon. He borrowed lots of money and spent it all. Then a terrible storm wrecked the kingdom and there was no money to fix things. So the people deposed Gordon and installed King Dave to clear up the mess. That turned out to be harder than anyone expected, but the people were brave and they knew there was no going back to the bad old days.
 
What is Ed Miliband’s rival tale? His much-praised “one-nation” speech last October harked back to the 1945 Labour government as a fable of left solidarity, weaving in bits of Miliband’s own refugee heritage. He has an ideological account of a rotten economic model that colonised Britain under Margaret Thatcher and infiltrated the Labour Party under Tony Blair. But that is an ideological postulation, not a story. No one ever gripped an audience with the words “once there was a paradigm”.
 
Miliband needs to narrate modern Britain in a way that makes it sound obvious that the coalition are the bad guys and Labour the good guys – or at least the better guys. He needs to describe the past in a way that makes people nod along and want to put him in charge of the future.
 

2. Tell it with pictures

 
One of the most common complaints I hear from Labour MPs about the Miliband operation is that it fails to control images that shape public perception of the party and its leader. The two most senior communications people in the team – Bob Roberts and Tom Baldwin – both have newspaper backgrounds. Miliband’s closest advisers deal either in technical detail or abstract ideas. Miliband himself has an aversion to the kind of husky-hugging photo stunt that Cameron used to get his message across in the early days of opposition. Cameron employed his own photographer to maintain a steady flow of faux-intimate black-and-white shots of the candidate at work. By contrast, picture agency databases are full of unflattering angles of the Labour leader. He needs someone to be thinking harder about how his message is transmitted without words.
 

3. Sign up some capitalists

 
Miliband wants to reform British capitalism. He says it rewards the wrong people; it squeezes the many while indulging the wealthy few. It is a message that could resonate with people weighed down by the rising cost of living. The problem is that, historically, Labour has a prickly relationship with profit, markets and commerce, which makes it hard for the nuance in Miliband’s position to come across. He can talk about fairness but as soon as he says “capitalism” some people will see a career politician with no business experience giving vent to old lefty grudges.
 
Miliband wants Labour to be the party of small businesses and entrepreneurs – the little guys who feel the rules of the game are skewed to favour banks and huge corporations. To get that idea across he needs endorsement from the people he claims to be representing. He needs to be able to point at good (that is, profitable and ethical) companies and say, “This is what I’m talking about.” To have a credible agenda for remaking capitalism, he needs capitalists on stage with him.
 

4. Promote the innovators

 
Miliband has accepted that any government he leads would face severe budget constraints. That is only the first stage in a process aimed at convincing voters that Labour takes seriously the need to be careful with taxpayers’ money. The next challenge is explaining how Labour austerity would be so different from the coalition version.
 
The answer, Miliband’s allies say, is that Labour would have different priorities. Partly these will be expressed by shuffling money around between government departments – building new houses instead of spending on housing benefit, for example. Or funding childcare places instead of paying benefits to rich pensioners.
 
But those are marginal devices that don’t herald a transformation in the way Britain is governed. Labour has to take an interest in ways of delivering public goods outside the old Whitehall model. That means taking an interest in social enterprise, co-operatives and projects that give local communities more control over budgets. There are many Labour MPs and councillors already immersed in this kind of thinking but it won’t be recognised as central to the party’s philosophy until it is embraced by the leader. For now, Labour looks defensive and nostalgic, hoping to preserve as much of the existing apparatus as possible without spending more money doing so. Voters can see that doesn’t add up.
 
Instead, Miliband should find projects where energetic people are effecting social change in innovative and cost-efficient ways. He should point to them as signposts to a fairer future with balanced budgets.
 
Miliband should promote MPs and shadow ministers who can do the same. He needs to create the sense that Labour is brimming with imaginative ideas, eager to prove it can govern in austerity instead of cringing before the task.
 

5. Don’t lose control of the tax debate

 
George Osborne has said that if the Conservatives win the next election he would not raise any more taxes in his effort to contain the deficit. That implies billions of pounds in budget cuts – a squeeze tighter than the one being inflicted. It may not even be possible, but that doesn’t stop the Chancellor putting it in a manifesto and then attacking
 
Labour for planning a “middle-class tax raid” as part of its deficit-reduction plans. Sneaky, but effective. Labour has some prototype tax plans: restoring the 10p rate; a mansion tax; a levy on bankers’ bonuses. In revenue terms, that won’t cover the cost of reversing many coalition cuts or avoiding new ones. The Tories will declare a “black hole” in Labour’s plans, where there lurks a “tax bombshell”.
 
What Miliband needs is a device to shape the way taxes are discussed as part of the budget debate. He needs a memorable measure, a fair-tax rule of some kind, that will serve as a cultural counterpart to Osborne’s cap on welfare spending.
 
This could come in the form of a minimum tax threshold to prevent corporations from hiding their money from the exchequer. It could be a pledge to lock in a certain ratio of tax that the richest pay compared to the middle and the poorest. Whatever it is, Miliband should be able to declare that, under Labour, the boss could never end up paying less tax than the office cleaner – and challenge Cameron to match that vow.
 

6. Recognise the anger on both sides of the welfare debate

 
The easiest mistake a party can make in opposition is blaming something other than itself for election defeats and lost arguments. For Labour, that hazard is enhanced by a tendency to assume a monopoly on righteous indignation.
 
According to this view, Tory ministers who say they are motivated by the impulse to help the poor must be stupid or lying and if they appear to be winning the argument over, say, benefit cuts, it must be because the truth has been obscured by spin and biased reporting. By extension, Conservative voters are selfish or deluded. That attitude guarantees a long stint in opposition.
 
Yes, George Osborne’s anti-welfare agenda has been advanced with selective statistics and unrepresentative anecdotes. It is cynical but that isn’t why it works. Tory welfare policy is popular because it strikes a chord with voters who feel the system makes mugs of working people. They labour for meagre wages, paying their rent out of their own pockets, and then in effect pay their workless neighbours’ rent too.
 
Miliband has understood that this is a problem in terms of raw opinion poll data and shifted Labour’s position accordingly. He has accepted the need for some kind of cap on social security spending. He talks about restoring the link between effort put in and reward taken out of the system. He also passionately, and rightly, rejects the vicious caricature of benefit claimants as an army of scrounging layabouts.
 
What Miliband hasn’t yet done is sound authentically convinced that public frustration with the benefits system is justified. Until he can do that, he won’t get any credit for his more humane approach. People are attracted to Tory welfare policy not because they are mean-spirited or brainwashed but because it speaks to sincere feelings of outrage.
 

7. U-turn on Europe with style

 
It is getting harder to find Labour MPs who like their leader’s current reluctance to promise a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Most doubt that the party can get through an election campaign in which David Cameron constantly berates Miliband for refusing to trust the people. So a U-turn looks likely.
 
When the time comes it is vital that Miliband pull it off with style. Voters are generally forgiving of changes in policy as long as they are candidly declared. The line should be that Labour remains worried that Cameron’s ambivalent attitude creates uncertainty that damages Britain’s economic interests. But the party has also listened to the people. So, in the interests of greater certainty, the best plan is to have the in/out referendum promptly. Bring it on!
 
If the car is going to end up pointing in a different direction, don’t put it through a clunky three-point manoeuvre. Make it a handbrake turn.
 

8. Get organised online

 
There is a jaundiced view of Miliband’s election as Labour leader that sees him as having been smuggled into the job by trade union bosses. Yet he also persuaded many ordinary members that he was the man to rejuvenate the party. Veteran activists report that there was something close to a buzz around Ed among younger members in their constituencies, generated in part by a smart online campaign run by Alex Smith, a young digital communications expert. That energy vanished once the leadership campaign was over and the party’s lumbering, steam-driven machinery cranked into gear. Smith left. Contact with the network of eager Ed-ites was lost.
 
There are now signs that Labour is getting organised online again. In April this year, the party signed up Matthew McGregor, a British social media expert who ran Barack Obama’s “rapid response unit” in the 2012 US presidential election. His main focus is co-ordinating attacks on the Conservatives. But Miliband also needs a digital strategy to shape his own image. Tory papers will wage a brutal personal campaign against him. His own ratings, lagging behind those of his party, are a problem. A web fightback can’t neutralise Fleet Street aggression but it can help define the Labour leader in terms he has chosen. His pitch is renewal and change. If that isn’t selling through the usual channels, it’s time to get viral.
 

9. Decide the question

 
The Conservatives want people to go to the polls in May 2015 with certain questions in their minds. Can Labour be trusted not to screw things up as it did last time? Does Ed Miliband look like a prime minister? Things are gradually getting better; why risk change? Labour needs to plant different questions. After all that pain, are we better off? Whose side are Cameron and Osborne really on?
 
The Tories will stoke fear of a Labour government. Miliband needs to conquer that fear and inspire people who doubt that it makes much difference who wins. This is a huge challenge when politics itself is in disrepute. What is the question to which voting Labour is the answer?