So it was the economy – stupid – after all. The pessimists among us kept expecting our position in the polls to unravel. Like Lynton Crosby, we awaited the date when “crossover” would arrive. As weeks to polling day became days and hours, we began to hope that it might not happen.
But at the cruellest possible moment, just as I’d fully dosed up on the Kool-Aid, it did. In the stunned silence of HQ, thoughts turned to those millions of pencils wavering over millions of ballot papers. At my desk by twenty to ten I had used the wait to draft an email of comments on the draft a Lib Dem coalition negotiating position. I paused over the send button, worried about tempting fate. My own wavering pencil. The email is still in “drafts”.
The debate about how we avoid a loss like that again will range widely – as it should. What some call political body language, tone and message frequency is a huge part of it. Political positioning is as much about what you choose to say often and what you choose to say only occasionally. The voters we need to reach may pay just a few minutes a year’s worth of attention to politics – around election time in the main. They may know that we have a deficit, that people are worse off and that the combination is miserable. But may have heard somewhere that finally things are apparently looking up.
It is perfectly consistent to both want change yet also to worry that what positives there are might be put at risk by change: your job, your savings, your pension or your mortgage. An opposition needs people to feel that they don’t pose any risk but do offer big enough change to make taking a chance worth it. It’s like trying to make an omelette without the public thinking you’re breaking any eggs.
That is why successful leaders of the opposition are so rare. Measured by winning a majority, as a thirty four year-old, there has been one in my lifetime. So for example, the public do feel that banks, energy companies, rail companies, supermarkets and letting agents rip them off. That might make some feel that Labour’s route back into voters’ hearts is a version of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. But people are just as wary of a potential government that is too happy to make enemies. And making it crystal clear you really understand voters’ concerns on spending, on immigration and on welfare, rather than seeking to change the subject is the only route to regaining their trust – they won’t ignore those just because they agree with you about other things.
That is easier said than done. Debates about the past are one thing – and humility or showing that we have learned from our mistakes are important. But reassurance really means showing we have the strength to deliver a tough and responsible approach in the future. Our shadow cabinet and leadership do understand the policy challenge. Part of my job was to stop spending commitments. Shadow ministers weren’t battering at the door with a wish list of expensive promises. They get that the game has changed.
But an opposition gets limited moments to reach the public. We need to be willing to them to reassure and resist the urge communicate a sense of radical disruptive change without making it clear, limited, and concrete. We should also absorb the fact that we are talking fiscal discipline not only because the voters want us to but because it matters to the country and it matters to us.
Voters want a leader who will lie awake worrying about the fact that national debt as a share of our economy is forecast to still be 70 per cent in 2020. That is almost double the pre-crisis level and more than where it was forecast to peak – this year – when George Osborne came to office. This shows the scale of the failure of the wasted years of the last Parliament.
But this understanding alone is not enough to either sort out the public finances or to win the election. Labour can only win in 2020 by arguing that a progressive approach to fiscal responsibility means a combination not just of spending cuts or higher tax revenues, but balanced and sustained growth. It would not make any economic or political sense to seek to out-cut the Tories for whom reducing the size of the state is a raison-d’être. And as a party, we don’t believe most working people are comfortably off and can afford significant new tax rises – which limits the scope for raising revenue.
So, many have correctly concluded that we will not win the next election without growth, productivity, exports and innovation at the core of our approach. Talking about ways to deliver a step change in digital jobs, infrastructure, science, a green economy, a pro-growth tax framework for business and a regional revival are not nice-to-haves but essential parts of making Labour’s argument stack up.
We should not focus on growth or living standards because we want to avoid talking about the difficult bits – but precisely because it is core to our plan to deal with those difficult issues facing the country. A related conclusion that we cannot avoid is that to prosecute that argument you must truly value the private sector’s role in driving those things.
These are key among the lessons we will need to learn for the next five years. And whoever wins will need to get serious, quickly. The consequence of not doing so will be millions more wavering pencils in 2020.