Matthew Taylor’s piece in the Independent on Sunday, (which was originally posted on his blog here, and about which he writes reflectively here) is characteristically thoughtful and concerned with the future of progressive politics.
The core of the piece is his suggestion that:
“Labour should consider a more radical departure from past practice. How about declaring a unilateral political ceasefire? Brown’s implicit message could be ‘we are reconciled to the possibility of losing the next election, what matters now is not the political skirmish but the battle against the economic crisis’.
Sadly, I think the idea of unilateral disarmament is probably as effective politically as it is in the diplomatic field. To win the next election we need not a ceasefire, but an asymmetric fightback aimed at gradually building a new electoral coalition.
The problem with the idea of politics by ceasfire – or politics by eschewing politics- is that your opponents don’t take you at face value because they suspect that you don’t really mean it, you’re just waiting for the terms of trade to change. They’re right to suspect this.
In politics the battle has to be joined at some point. By declaring a political ceasefire, you are simply saying that you don’t wish to fight now, and would rather fight later. A smart opponent would therefore do their very best to fight now.
Second, the battle against the economic crisis cannot be separated from the economic battle. It can’t be split in the political world or in voters minds. By saying you will do X to help the economy, you are inviting the judgement of the electorate. I doubt that anyone would invite that judgement on neutral or unfavourable terms.
So a political ceasefire is neither possible (you don’t really mean it, and your opponents would not accept it) nor sustainable (turning the other cheek to their subsequent attacks would pall very quickly).
That said, Matthew’s analysis of the underlying political situation feels right to me. If I read him correctly Matthew believes that the volatility of the polls over the last two years indicates that the Conservatives current lead may be substantial but is not solid and that public support for the Conservatives is based less on enthusiasm for a “detoxified” Conservatism than with disatisfaction with Labour in Government after 11 years.
This seems to fit with the facts. To this Matthew adds what I think is an essential point: the territory and technology we are fighting over has changed so much over the last two decades that the classic “New Labour” approach is likely to be ineffective. With the economy in the state it is in, it may even be counterproductive.
So what can be done? Matthew favours a unilateral ceasefire. I favour asymmetric warfare. Our aim at the next election is to win a share of the vote that is roughly equal to that we won in 2005.
Given that third term entropy means that some Labour voters will be attracted to the Conservatives and the Conservative vote will be motivated to turn out, we have to do three things.
First, we have to turn out Labour identifying voters in unheard of numbers.
Second, we have to attract occasional Labour voters. Those who have on occasion voted Lib Dem are a vital target.
Finally we have to focus relentlessly on the current undecided voters, making it abundantly clear to them what the choice that lies before them is.
Each of these steps is required for us to win the next election, and they can be taken cumulatively.
Matthew is right to suggest that our current focus should not be on hand to hand combat with the Conservatives over undecided voters. That’s a battle we are bound to lose at the moment.
Our first step should be to gain the support of all those that usually vote Labour. This is specifically not a “Core vote” strategy. The people who voted Labour in 2005 are not all Compassites.
I think the priority must be a relentless under the radar focus on the difference a Labour government makes to communities up and down the counrty, and the spelling out, in human terms of what is at risk from a Conservative government.
This isn’t a simple “Cuts” message, but an economic, cultural and emotional one. In essence the message should be that the gains of the last ten years have been hard fought, and should not be thrown away just because the Conservatives have learnt to smile while picking your pocket.
These arguments won’t appeal to Nick Robinson or the other grand poo-bahs ofthe media. They don’t want to report on such a boring story. It is a message that can only be got out voter by voter, door by door, church hall by church hall.
As this support firms up, then it becomes possible to reach out to those who generally support the aims of a Labour government but have specific doubts, and concerns.
Here we do need to admit frankly where we could have done better, in order to gain permission to talk about the things that lie in the balance. We may even have to symbolically jetison some policies we believe are right for the country.
Those decisions are far above my head, but the key recognition must be that the support of the three or four per cent of people who were sypmapthetic to us in 2005 but did not vote for us will be essential in 2010 .
Finally, for the truly undecided voter, the argument we must make now is not political, but economic, as Matthew says. We should use the time between now and the start of the next election campiagn not to ask for their support, but for their help and goodwill.
The arguments that will decide their votes are the practical ones about who will deliver for their families economically. These policy solutions need to be carried out consistently, but not, as yet, flagrantly politically.
We should say to them, “Soon you’ll be asked to make a choice. Not yet, but soon,. When you do, this is what we will offer and what you can judge us on, make your own mind up about our opponents”.
The purpose of this is not to declare a ceasefire, but to invite a delay in judgement until the right moment. In the meantime, in the midst of crisis our opponents foolishness should be regarded as a source for sorrow, not pleasure.
The common theme is the choice that the voters have to make, and the consequences of that choice. It’s just that the nature and consequences of the choice differs from person to person, and so does when we should ask them to choose.
To win the next election, in Harry Truman’s phrase, we need “the September Democrats, the October Democrats, the Monday Democrats, and the Tuesday Democrats.” Realising that these are different groups, with different priorities which require different communication strategies is a very important part of building another winning coalition.
To begin with, that requires not a ceasfire, but a guerilla fightback.