The fight for the future of the Labour Party is obsessed with the past

For nearly two decades I was a card carrying member of the Labour Party. I was attracted by the values and intent of a political party that could challenge the status quo and seek to balance benefit for all sides of society. A party with a caring, empowering and not paternalistic attitude to those less able and more vulnerable in society. I was inspired by the humble, kind and strong vision of John Smith and found Tony Blair’s New Labour electability seducing.

“What’s happening in the Labour Party at the moment is a disgrace and disastrous for our country.” 
What’s happening in the Labour Party at the moment is a disgrace and disastrous for our country. The over characterisation, the lack of debate, the absence of any real clarity of thinking or new ideas and so little belief being displayed is – all playing out on embarrassing public display. The choice between the different candidates is presented, even by themselves, in the most puerile of ways: back to a pre-free market economy with Jeremy Corbyn or back to “Blair-lite”. Why is there no forward just back?
“The Labour Party has over decades delivered a huge contribution to our nation. Much of what is best in our nation has been achieved by The Labour Party and its leadership over the years.” 
The Labour Party has over decades delivered a huge contribution to our nation. Much of what is best in our nation has been achieved by The Labour Party and its leadership over the years.  They achieved it by doing something which almost no current politician, and none of the current Labour leadership candidates do, which is lead us on a truly new path. Pensions, mass house building, the NHS, minimum wages, better working conditions, first female cabinet minister, creating the conditions for female MPs to succeed, gender equality, greater rights for gay couples, greater regulation, and free public schooling are all significant achievements of the Labour Party. When at its best the Labour Party brings new ideas and concepts to the table and wins the national argument. For example the concept of an “ethical commonwealth” powered the progress of the socially radical post war Attlee government and gave hope to the nation.
“What is needed now, desperately, both for the survival of the Labour Party and the good of our democracy, is a compelling vision of how both sides of our society can be reconciled and enjoy growth equally and together.”
What is needed now, desperately, both for the survival of the Labour Party and the good of our democracy, is a compelling vision of how both sides of our society can be reconciled and enjoy growth equally and together. The British people are inherently fair and they want a government that balances outcomes for all. The only route to this is radical leadership.
Those supporting Jeremy Corbyn are on a mission to reclaim what they see as their party. They are being successful because their position comes, not from a compelling new vision, but from guilt and fear: guilt because they feel they sold out to Blair’s electability in a desperate grab for power, and fear because they don’t have the experience or insight to understand and work with a radically changed world order and disrupted working world. At least Corbyn has a deep passion, although misguided, for his proposed policies. The fact that they are out of date and won’t work in today’s interconnected and market driven world is tragic, but at least he is going for it.

The others – Kendall, Burnham, Cooper – are again seemingly devoid of new ideas and the ability to argue for anything. Their lack of ability and passion are a major reason Corbyn is doing so well. They can’t even argue against a set of policies which would take our economy back 30 years. Perhaps, despite their many years in politics, they haven’t thought about the arguments for and against ideas like nationalisation or uncontrolled public sector investment through printing money. If that’s true its rather disappointing given that none, yes none, of them have any ‘real world’ experience having been in politics almost all their working lives.

“How ironic and shameful that the only brake on austerity at the moment is George Osborne?”
Finally the lack of leadership and belief in the Labour Party goes deeper than just these four candidates and is profoundly disappointing and disheartening. Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis who perhaps could have provided the required leadership are surely positioning – cynically betting that this next leader will be a “transition” guy with no chance of election success. They conclude therefore better to stand back and let party division play out using failure to drive necessary cohesiveness rather than radical ideas and passionate argument. This leaves the country, and the millions who are desperately struggling with austerity and inequality, alone and without an effective voice representing them. How ironic and shameful that the only brake on austerity at the moment is George Osborne?

It’s been said that The Labour Party is facing an existential crisis. But that’s not true: no one is fighting for the future just the past.

UK General election Brand Analysis WEEK 2: Dis-engage or Re-engage?

I wanted to leave this blog until after the manifestos were published. I haven’t had time to read them all in detail but is seems to me there is a genuine left-right difference emerging and I, for one, think that is a good thing.

As Mark Ritson pointed out in his new Marketing Week column entitled “Why democracy is poor man’s marketing” one of the major problems with politics is a recent lack of quality and differentiated thinking. (By the way what’s happening with Mark moving from Marketing to Marketing Week? Feels like Man Utd have just poached a star striker from Chelsea!)

Ritson’s response to this situation, as a free market advocate, is that we follow his suggestion to bow out of engaging in this election and even democracy itself. He justifies this based on the democratic process producing the current stodgy undifferentiated and unexciting cartel of parties.

This opting out response is wrong and dangerous. Democracy is simply too important and different to apply the same market based logic to it. Not everything should be run by free markets and that includes vital public services and our political system.

Politics is complex and much, much more important than persuading someone to buy a flight or a coffee. It requires a deeper level of engagement and effort from both communicator and receiver. Much of the trouble with politics over the past couple of decades has been the commercial marketers moving in imposing a flawed assumption that politics could, and should, be reduced to a single minded insight, benefit and reason to believe. That “we the people” could not be trusted or weren’t even capable of making an informed choice. The political elite became convinced that we were stupid, and guess what….we disengaged. Turnout in the 2001 election reaching a low of 59%.

The challenge of this coming election is whether I, you, and we, dis-engage or re-engage. This is an important election not because this MP or that MP fighting for thier seat tells us so. This is important because the only way we will get a better, more differentiated, more exciting system is by getting involved and demanding change. Our response to scandal and lack of trust must be to understand now more than ever that “they work for us” not the other way round.

That is why the differences that seem to be emerging are exciting. If you believe in a strong central government which will spend more and give the average person more state protection then you’ve got a choice in Labour. If you believe in less central power and smaller government then the choice is Conservative.

At last, and somewhat ironically given that we have retrenched to the traditional left-right big/small government dynamic, the third way, of Blair, Mandelson, Campbell and Gould, a marketing flim-flam if ever there was one, is dying back and we have a seemingly clearer choice.

When the election stays at the surface level, as it surely will for people who opt out, then all you hear is the focus grouped messages of “fairness”. The reality is that there is emerging differentiation. The leaders are showing their colours. We have greater access to information and content than ever before with information rich websites and televised debates.  The more we engage, and debate, the greater sense of where the real differences lie. “Stuffing the election”, opting-out and throwing our hands up in the air is the surest way to ensure that nothing changes. 

The choices maybe becoming somewhat clearer but they are far from easy and that’s the difference between democracy and Tesco, Ryannair, Starbucks and Facebook. Engage and we have the chance to influence and demand better. Dis-engage and we deserve what we get.

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UK General election Brand Analysis WEEK 1: The brand challenges

Over the coming month I am going to be reporting on the UK General election analysing the week by week action from a brand strategy perspective. If you would like to receive these thoughts and get involved in the debate  then sign up NOW! (It’s free and easy).

As Gordon Brown, the UK Prime Minister, made his way to Buckingham Palace yesterday, with camera helicopters chasing his every move, the official starters gun fired on the UK General Election. Two main parties are in the race – Labour led by Gordon Brown and David Cameron‘s Conservatives with a third smaller party The Liberal Democrats making up the roster whose leader is Nick Clegg.

Some are billing this as the “closest” election for years. Actually from an opinion poll perspective the Conservatives have what historically is an almost unassailable lead ranging from 5-9% over Labour. However boundary changes and Labour’s strength in urban areas means that in order to win power The Conservatives need a major 10%+ swing to gain power. The prospect of a hung parliament is a real one.

But where are the main brands and their strategies as we go into this exciting and important election.

The Conservatives haven’t made enough progress on repositioning
Despite David Cameron and George Osbornes’ (Shadow Chancellor) best efforts to reposition the Conservative party it hasn’t been as successful as it should have been. When Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson undertook the repositioning of the Labour party in order to win power in 1997 after 18 years in opposition they tackled both the strategic and the symbolic.

They understood that the only way to really convince the electorate and win back trust was to truly give evidence that would lodge in people’s brains and persuade them of the changes. For Labour this wasn’t the addition of the eponymous “New” to their party name but actually the smashing of symbols of “old” Labour such as Clause IV – the pledge on the means of production being in state hands.

This combined with a series of clever tactics to neutralise doubt and allow middle class voters to think of Labour as a real option. They had lots of clever economic ideas but it was the promise to keep to the spending commitments of the Conservative government at the time which allowed people to get over their trust barrier since it allowed people to think “at least they can’t be worse”.

Unfortunately for The Conservatives their repositioning has been much less significant or impactful. Perhaps it is the consequence of too many people, including David Cameron himself, having a marketing and communications background but the electorate have, I think, a pretty good sense of the truth, that much of the change has been at the surface.

A new logo, a new leader, a new team, a greater focus on public services and a general move to the centre ground. But people still know that the Conservative party is still full of the old guard and the old links to privilege. David Cameron is an old Etonian – which shouldn’t matter – but from a brand perspective it does. It’s a symbol that the party hasn’t changed at its heart from the old ruling elites.

The question is can The Conservatives turn what they have to their advantage? I think there is an opportunity to return to some of their older, more deeply, held values such as lower regulation, more decentralisation and lower taxation to stimulate a commercial revival, and to say this with conviction presenting a more coherent and convincing story. This would integrate some of their new brand assets with their old.

Labour’s biggest weakness is Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown is also a potent symbol. Unfortunately for him both politically and personally his brand story is tragic. The “nearly man” who when he made it to power oversaw a crumbling of a government.

The struggle of Brown is monumental. He is battling on so many fronts: the history of New Labour and Tony Blair; not having a mandate; economic crisis; Union power; Cabinet disunity….

His personal “rebranding” attempted through a series of more informal interviews is too little too late. Again the electorate has a pretty good view of the truth that Gordon Brown is a left leaning passionate politician, who has given his life to politics, but is consequently mono-dimensional and difficult to get on with. Not a people person at all.

The trouble is that he seems tired, whether smiling or not, and as a symbol of a government 13 years old, this is not good. The challenge for Labour is to communicate freshness and new ideas which is why a new leader installed a year ago would have helped.

Despite what the media is saying – this election is not about trust
The media is obsessed, off the back of the MP’s expenses scandal, that this is an election about which political party brand or leader-brand to trust. It isn’t.

The expenses scandal was shameful but given the standing of politics in most people’s minds was just a confirmation that the “pigs” had their noses in the trough. This is a massive issue for the UK but this election will make not one jot of difference. By June everyone will still think that MPs are “on the take” and untrustworthy. The battle for trust will not be won in the next 6 weeks. Let’s remember that political power in the UK has been taken over almost completely by people with little experience away from Westminster. Brown and Cameron are prime examples, both have devoted their lives to the pursuit of political power. If the “political class” think they can regain trust in this time then more fool them – there needs to be serious reassessment of our political model, who and why people are involved and how our democracy works. This needs to be a national priority over years not weeks.

No, I believe that this election will be squarely about the economy and who will make the most progress the fastest on the deficit and creating economic, consumption based wealth again. Almost everything else, unfortunately, will be superfluous.

And here the brand battle lines are actually quite neatly drawn: Labour with an investment led approach, using Keynesian public sector interventions, and crucially not cutting in 2010; with The Conservatives advocating cutting sooner and deeper (although they won’t admit it) and enabling a free market recovery to pay down debt.

These are the same positions that have been held by the parties for decades. The brand and electoral challenge will be which party can communicate from their leadership, through their symbols, integrating their history, to their policies, in the most coherent and convincing way.

From that perspective this election is a classical brand challenge – how to use all your assets to surround the consumer with the right consistent cues to make them buy.

Tune in next week for further thinking on round two of this political brand bull fight! Remember you can sign up to receive this blog every week either in a reader or by email – it’s free and easy – click here NOW!


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