Monday 23 March 2009

We have got to get over Militant - and New Labour

From the floor of debate change we need.

- We had the voice of wizened old activism from the floor. "I remember the 1980s. The Trots will be back. We must have a Trot infestation strategy". Both Will Straw and Alastair Campbell have suggested these ghosts and nightmares are the main thing holding back the 'change we need', and here's the proof.

- But we've just have a very good rejoinder from the floor too: "We do have to get over Militant. We so need to do that. But we need to get over New Labour too". Those are now deeply alienating for new generations of activists. Let go of it all.

From the same speaker: "'Cynicism is boring' was the message from New York. If New York can get over cynicism, then Britain can".

Ben Brandzel has just taken this one head on: "I say in my chapter that I have not gone a day without hearing a horror story about the Trots or the Bennites. So thank you for keeping my perfect record. But we do have to get beyond that by addressing it. It was very dangerous". But Brandzel has a Trot defence strategy: it is not by closing down, it is by opening up the structures. It is not about checking and vetting everybody, so that you control them. 300 angry people can dominate a party which is failing. They can not if you don't try to check the bad apples, but to make sure you have opened up the party. If everyone has to be a vetted, signed and sealed community activist who is New Labour approved, then you are turning away thousands of people who want to help you.

"When all you have to choose from is professional politicos and the unemployed Trot newspaper-seller, then you are in trouble. Seven loud and angry people can dominate a small meeting", says Brandzel.

Loud applause for this. This is the answer. And this is a home crowd for the Change We Need argument.

And Campbell says: "I bumped into Derek Hatton and he said you do realise that I am now to the right of you. So they do move over time".

More seriously: "The Tories will get some of these ideas too. Let them do it and try. From where we are now, the Labour party has to take a few risks and starting doing it".


Zio Bastone said...

Are there any ideas here, any concrete engagement with the world, or was the aim merely to have an endless discussion of branding strategies?

Sunder Katwala said...

You will be able to read the book itself at our Change We Need microsite. Its a substantive piece of work; I would say that approximately none of the 110 pages are about branding.

Zio Bastone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zio Bastone said...

Would you indeed? Well I’ve now read a goodly chunk of this document. So let me answer my own question since your response is disingenuous and flippant.

On the face of it, a lot of it is indeed about branding, including brand management, as I’d surmised. All of it seems to be about winning campaigns; ie marketing techniques. None of it is about the ideas, the substance from which politics surely draws the only life it can have. It is as though a great many pages were expended on how the Americans sell Baked Beans and how we could do that as well.

Let me give a couple of examples.

Brown’s foreword speaks of ‘a sweep of destiny’ which pops up every now and then as ‘history’. The politician’s job is, apparently, to ‘name’ such moments. That is branding. A later sentence begins, ‘If we are to continue being the change that Britain needs…’: ‘Change’ in this context is meaningless. You can’t continue to be a change, except rhetorically. And ‘change’ has been the most obvious and repetitive brand word used in recent months.

Kate Kenski notes that the Conservatives appeal more to women than do men; ‘Labour must consider this.’ Her piece looks at issues such as media framing. This is a marketing approach. Politics should NOT be about selling stuff to women shoppers. (Clinton took, at one stage, the Dershowitz option on torture. Palin thought that Africa was a country; maybe she still does. Both are women. However, the election of Mrs Palin would not have been an ‘achievement’, as Robert Shapiro puts it. Aren’t their ideas, such as they are, more important than their gender?)

Karin Christiansen and Marcus Roberts deal with New Labour’s need to ‘deliver campaigns’ through ‘volunteer management’. How enthusiasm can be captured by a pre-existing top down strategy is mispresented as though it were grassroots activism, which it is not: it is re-production, not production itself. And the ‘vertical but decentralised network’ envisaged is a political MLM. Or politics as franchising.

Treating form and presentation as though they could be separated from content and ideas is actually very dangerous. Should respectable politicians look across at dictatorships, for example? (Hey it worked for them. Why shouldn’t it work for us?) Should murderous thugs ‘self organise volunteer squads, and decentralise the entire campaign in an exciting new way,’ as Ben Brandzel put it? (What Herr Hitler needs is more positive media framing, a presence on Facebook and a stronger sense of empowerment by his supporters.) Or maybe all political parties could ‘microtarget’ career criminals and ne’er do wells, in line with what Yair Ghitza and Todd Rogers seem to be saying.

Do I exaggerate? Yes of course. But New Labour was last elected by the lowest percentage (22%) of those eligible to vote since the 1940s and the Iraq fiasco was launched on the back of just such positive framing.