For Labour's next leader, their first 17 days in charge are the ones that matter most

To win again, Labour must tackle the perception that it was a soft touch on immigration and spent too heavily in office, warns Ed Miliband's pollster James Morris. 

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For the next leader of the Labour party, the seventeen days between being elected leader of the Labour party and sitting down after their first conference speech will be the most important period of their whole leadership. Define themselves in the right way from the start and they have a fighting chance of being Prime Minister in 2020. But, as Ed Miliband discovered, if they get off on the wrong foot it may never be possible to convince the public to think again.

They have to use that period to take on the big issues that devastated Labour’s vote at the last election.

It starts with spending. More than 60 per cent of voters are concerned that ‘Labour would borrow more than Britain can afford’. That was not a uniquely English worry – the numbers are just as high in anti-austerity Scotland.

The perception is that the last Labour government never saw a problem without thinking it could be solved by additional spending. This spending was felt to be inefficient, a point that many public sector workers will make about their own organisations. Swing voters also thought Labour had the wrong priorities, ranging from paying child benefit to recent immigrants whose children live in other countries, to the Iraq war. The brand is associated with waste.

Tackling this problem is even more important for a leader who wants to oppose government cuts than one who would work within Tory spending plans. If you want to spend more, you need to be trusted more. Whoever wins will need a new story on public service reform, not defined by consumerist choice or a preference for markets but by value for money. Simply opposing austerity is not enough to lead people to trust Labour with their money. Strategy will have to overcome tactics to make this work.

Take the issue of public health. It is of low salience and produces unpopular policy – sugar taxes, NHS sanctions and so on. However, it may be exactly the right area to focus on to show a shift in approach to spending, prioritising prevention over the more expensive cure. Labour may need to advance unpopular policies to shift its brand in the right direction.

The next leader will also have to deal with the issues that drove Labour’s working class base into the hands of Ukip. There is no sign that the problem there was a lack of revolutionary left wing policy.

Instead, the central issue was immigration. By 63 to 20 voters think Labour should be ‘tougher on immigration’ not more positive about its benefits. BAME voters say Labour should by tougher by a margin of 14 points, under 35s say tougher by a margin 25 points, C2DE voters by margin of 52 points and amongst older voters the margin is 53 points. Forty-nine per cent of English people are seriously concerned that Labour ‘puts the interests of other people before the interests of England’.

Tackling this issue starts by genuinely empathising with concerns. This is a challenge to the economic right of the party that sees people worried about immigration as Luddites; and a challenge to the liberal left who see them as morally degenerate. These condescending attitudes are part of what defines the Labour party for many of the voters Labour lost to its right – to Ukip and the Tories.

Labour’s idea of a just immigration system and a cohesive society cannot be the same as Ukip’s. It cannot be, not just for moral and economic reasons but also electoral reasons. Labour cannot credibly be an anti-immigration party. Instead, it needs to embrace an open and multicultural but strong and distinctive conception of Englishness that emphasises values like contribution and community.

While identity mattered in England, it is almost the whole game in Scotland. If you voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum you had a 90 per cent chance of voting SNP in May 2015 whether you were pro- or anti-austerity.

Labour needs to fundamentally change in Scotland, putting Holyrood first and rebuilding links to communities who felt Labour had taken for granted. In Kezia Dugdale, the party has a leader who can make the generational changes needed.

But, while taking seats from the SNP is vital for a majority, it is moot when it comes to ousting the Tories. The only way to overturn the Tory majority is to take seats from them in England and Wales. That means that where there are trade-offs, Scotland cannot drive the national strategy.

Above all, the next leader needs a clear purpose and sense of direction. The constant shift from slogan to slogan over the last five years meant voters had no idea what Labour stood for. In setting out their agenda for the future, there are strands of Milibandism that the party should pay attention to. If Labour moves away from spending as the answer to every problem, it also needs a new approach to creating positive change. Ed Miliband was spot on when he emphasised pre-distribution. It is not a slogan, but it is a powerful new idea that expresses how government can make people’s lives better without necessarily spending more. Similarly, there is real power in the idea of middle-out economics; that growth comes when people in the middle of society have confidence and can spend money; that Britain succeeds when working people succeed.

Whatever agenda the next leader pursues, it cannot be presented as an accommodation with the electorate. It has to appear genuine. The best way to achieve that is for it to be genuine. To bastardise Tony Blair, Labour should not act because it has “listened” but because it believes in this stuff.

James Morris works at GQRR Research, and was pollster to Ed Miliband and the Labour party. The full research can be read here.

James Morris has worked as a pollster for political leaders in several countries, including Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.

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