Labour must appeal to the heart, not the head

Reports in the Sunday Times that there was a lively discussion in political Cabinet last week about Labour's election strategy are no great surprise.

Political Cabinet, away from the ears of the Cabinet Secretary, and the minutes he keeps, is the place for such fundamentals to be thrashed out. We read that Gordon Brown set out the ‘dividing lines’ he wants to fight the election on: Labour investment versus Tory cuts. But this strategy was then questioned by his ministers, including Yvette Cooper, the newly-promoted welfare minister. So annoyed was the PM, that the meeting broke up earlier than planned. Readers of PR Week will the recognise that just as every client thinks they are an expert in advertising, so every senior politician thinks they are a master election strategist.
 
All anonymous briefings to newspapers about Cabinet meetings are designed to make someone look good and someone else look bad. They have to be treated a little warily because they tend to give a partial account of a debate which may have been balanced and nuanced. The trick to guessing the anonymous source of Cabinet leaks is to ask cui bono - who benefits - and that usually serves to point the finger in the right direction.
 
But this one rings true, and the story’s writers, Jonathan Oliver and Isabel Oakeshott are usually on the money. There is indeed a debate going on inside Labour about the strategy for the election, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Brown must be dismayed to read headlines about Cabinet splits so soon after a Cabinet reshuffle which saw off his internal critics such as James Purnell and Caroline Flint, and demanded a new blood oath of loyalty from those to stayed behind such as David Miliband. Brown might have expected to carry the first Cabinet meeting since the blood-letting. It reminds me of Wellington’s famous remarks at his first Cabinet on becoming Prime Minister after a life in the army: ‘I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.’
 
But the Iron Chancellor, like the Iron Duke, should stick to his guns. He is right that elections are fought on simple choices, reduced to slogans which are repeated for months. ‘Investment versus cuts’ is as good as any, and it worked for Labour in 2001 and 2005. It plays to a deep-seated folk-memory that the Tories cut public services, and more recent evidence that Labour spends money on schools and hospitals. It avoids difficult discussions about quantitative easing, regulation of sub-prime markets, and Icelandic banks.
 
Election campaigns are binary, not complex, nuanced, or multi-layered. They involve those that turn out to vote in a choice between two competing visions, and victory or defeat rests on a few thousand voters in key wards in swing seats. People do not read manifestos, nor do they attend hustings. They cannot name more than two or three national politicians, and never hear a speech. They lead busy lives, and politics does not impinge on their consciousness for more than a few minutes, even during an election campaign. The ‘undecideds’ (the few thousand people who decide who runs Britain) vote based on their fleeting impressions and gut instincts, a process explored in other contexts by Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
 
Another important book The Political Brain by Drew Weston makes the point that ‘the political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures and policies to make a reasoned decision.’
 
The mistake the political left has historically made has been an appeal to reason, based on facts, statistics, and detailed arguments. The success of the political right has been based on an appeal to emotion, based on fears, hopes, prejudices and impressions. This is how you can explain why people voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1983, and for George W Bush in 2000. When the left manages to connect at an emotional level – Blair and Clinton spring to mind –it can buck the trend and win support.
 
So Brown needs to embed his simple emotional appeal – investment versus cuts – into the popular consciousness. Vote Labour if you like schools and hospitals, vote Tory if you don’t care. If he can back it up with off-message quotes about lower levels of public spending from Tory front benchers, then so much the better. During the 2001 general election, Oliver Letwin was forced into hiding after claiming that he would like to see public spending head downwards towards 35 per cent. Labour even hired bloodhounds for the photo-op and dressed Fraser Kemp up as Sherlock Holmes.
 
If Labour tries to fight the 2010 election on an appeal to reason, it will lose. If it fights purely on its record, even its recent record of handling the credit crunch, it will lose. If Labour can frame the argument to be about the things voters value in their neighbourhood – such as your local neighbourhood police team, nurses in the local hospital, those lovely classroom assistants at the primary up the road, and present Cameron as the man who wants to see them sacked, then even at this late stage, the Tories may just have a fight on their hands.

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