Saturday, 26 November 2011

Why Is the Labour Message SO Muted?

Let’s Face It, the Tories have Won the Propaganda Battle
Talk to most people out there, and they believe – unshakably BELIEVE – that Labour profligacy caused the economic crisis, that the public sector is a leech upon the taxpayer, that immigrants are flooding the country, that teachers’ pensions are unaffordable, etc. etc.
Despite the fact that these opinions are demonstrably not true, these things are now so entrenched, so unassailable in many people’s minds, that the Labour leadership appears to have stopped trying to deny them, and seems, rather, to be trying instead to ‘move on’ from them. Certainly, Ed went through an embarrassing period of ‘apologising’ for Labour’s past ‘mistakes’ which I never agreed with.

Tory Lies and their Impact
If you’re going to tell a lie, said Hitler, tell a big one. And the Tories have perfected the art. For much of the time, we seem to be living in an alternative universe where facts do not matter.
Take, for instance, Michael Gove at a recent conference to mark the launch of new research on the history of History teaching. Here is the run of events, as described by an eyewitness:

David Cannadine started the proceedings with a clear, passionate but evidence-based account of the development of history teaching over the past 100 years – with two major recommendations - don't tinker with the National Curriculum – it works; but do make history compulsory to age 16; and one major observation 'there never was a golden age of history teaching...'
Then up stands Gove with his pre-prepared, ill-informed, cliché-repeating mantra about 'woeful' lack of knowledge, as if David Cannadine had said nothing at all.
For his 'evidence' Gove trotted out once again the ephemeral 'Matthews' research at Cardiff (previously much quoted by Niall Ferguson) but entirely misrepresenting even that. And then launched into a critique of GCSE based solely on a misunderstanding of the SHP GCSE specs.

Of course, the Tories have the press on their side. None of the above was mentioned in the Guardian, which reported Mr Gove’s speech in much more respectful tones:

British history is being neglected in schools because pupils' exam choices cluster around the rise of Nazi Germany and the American wild west, according to the education secretary, Michael Gove.

So perhaps there is little we can do as individuals to correct the impression that all History teachers are irrelevant idiots consciously undermining Britain’s glorious heritage.

The Art of ‘Presentation’
But is it ALL down to a Tory press?

I wonder how much of the problem is simply ‘presentation’. If you look at the Tory lies, they are all very ‘headline-worthy’. I am always struck by how complicated and lacking-in-impact Labour’s recent proposals have been in comparison: e.g. ‘Labour’s five-point plan for growth and jobs: 1…’ (people have lost interest as soon as you say ‘Labour’s’). And as for: ‘Yes we agree that we need to reduce the deficit by cutting government expenditure but the government is cutting too far too fast’ – the mantra of the early days of opposition – everybody had stopped listening by ‘Yes we agree’!

Tory pronouncements are simple soundbites, which impact and stick. Particularly, they have the appearance of common-sense – the EU is removing our sovereignty, benefit scroungers are fleecing the system, etc. These statements are, in fact, TRUE … with significant reservations. This makes them particularly hard to refute, because the refutation involves, not a simple statement, but a detailed argument.

The Impotence of Labour Logic
I read recently a most fascinating article by Rhiannon Lockley in the Labour Left’s Red Book about Labour’s failure to impact on the working class. The critical issue she addressed was the intellectualisation of the Left’s message to an audience who saw it – and rejected it – as an attempt to ‘tell them what to do’.

I remember coming across this attitude years ago during a Personnel Committee meeting when – as I argued the case of one interviewee – a very senior councillor stormed out, accusing me of ‘telling him how to vote’. And if you think that was an isolated exception – after a recent Branch meeting when I urged members to respond to the Boundary Commission proposals for our town – I received yesterday an email from one man complaining: ‘I do resent being told to do what you think is best for Aycliffe’. This was an educated, older man, in a position of high responsibility … but he was utterly incapable of appreciating the differences along the spectrum from expressing an opinion, through arguing a case, urging action, and invoking duty, to issuing an instruction.

I am, of course, hugely persuasive, which is why even people who should know better merge listening to my opinion with having to agree! But this makes our task even harder. Because the truth is that – the more compelling our argument – the more likely it is to be rejected by listeners whose underlying prejudices it challenges. As long as we make powerless points and they can ignore us, that’s fine. But as soon as we begin to win the debate, they get angry and reject us … on all the silly grounds they trot out all the time – that we’re fanatics, troublemakers, doing something which will have dire consequences and even wreck the cause in which we believe.
And, when all else fails, that we have no right to tell them what to do or what to believe.

It’s hard not throw your hands up in despair and cry: ‘We’re lost!’ Britain has some of the most draconian immigration laws in human history (much worse than the ‘isolationist’ immigration laws of 1920s USA), the influx of ‘foreign’ workers is free movement of labour under our EU terms of membership, and immigrants contribute £billions to the economy. But as soon as you begin to explain this, you’re ‘preaching at us’. Teachers’ pensions are far from ‘gold-plated’, and part of a contractual agreement imposed upon new recruits up to 50 years ago … but the people who say they are unaffordable do not want to discuss details like that.

How can Labour, therefore, get its opposition message across?
Labour has not always been clueless in the propaganda stakes. ‘Britain’s not working’ and ‘Things can only get better’ DID have a significant and permanent impact. One of the lovely things about the 1997 election was a small plastic card with the Five Things Labour Believes on the back. Simple and effective – you simply left one in every house you visited. There ARE rules to this kind of thing, and we have some very clever people in the Party, so I cannot for the life of me see why our bon mots are so useless today.
Moreover, not all Tory gambits hit the mark, and we need to be ready to capitalise. NOBODY, for instance, believes that ‘We’re all in this together’. So why the Labour Party hasn’t responded with a ‘Some of us are more ‘in’ it than others’ I don’t know.

Beyond better soundbites, however, the Left is knocking.

Authoritative statements – though fairly impervious to argument – ARE vulnerable to satire – the strongest voices on the Left, at the moment, seem to be comedians such as Marcus Brigstocke and Andy Parsons. But if you think how long it took Spitting Image to displace Margaret Thatcher, you wonder whether satire is effective enough on its own.

Another strategy which has overturned prejudice, of course, is non-violent direct action – such as used by Martin Luther King to confront institutional racism. So all hail the #Occupy movements. The frenzied outrage against the coming TUC ‘Day of Action’ demonstrates that it, too, is having an impact – the sight of hundreds of headteachers and civil servants on protest marches IS regarded as a powerful argument. But Labour supporters need to realise that, as soon as the demonstrations turn violent – if even a small portion of the crowd start looting – then the middle class swing round behind authority, behind the government, and all gains are irrevocably lost … which is why, of course, the Labour leadership tends to distance itself from the very actions which could secure it mass support.

As for myself, the other day I met a man who reassured me that there ARE people out there who care, who think things through, who are persuadable … and who do appreciate my attempts at moderate rational arguments in the Newton News! As the Tory government measures increasingly begin to bite, Labour needs to hold on to its trust that there will be more and more people prepared to listen.

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