Views My Own

Why the Labour Party Doesn't Trust the Electorate

Their manifesto is set to be radical, but over the past few weeks the party has kept it safe with a series of deeply uninspiring policy announcements.
May 15, 2017, 11:52am
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Harold Wilson famously said of Labour: "It is a moral crusade or it is nothing."

To which you might add: "Or sometimes it is also free car parking."

Over the last couple of weeks, the pre-trials from Labour – outside of the leaked manifesto – have concerned very small things.

There was the announcement on childhood obesity: to ban junk food ads before 9PM.

There was the one on four more bank holidays.

Then there was the one on free car parking in hospitals, made all the less significant by the fact that the picture is already mixed; most NHS trusts in England already offer free car parking in certain cases: children, cancer, dialysis.


While somewhere in a smoky backroom full of trade unionists the party was preparing to renationalise the railways, scrap tuition fees and build a million houses, in front of the cameras they were parroting the old "we don't comment on leaks" line and talking about how "no ads for Curly Wurlys before 9PM" is imperative for the better world they are fighting for.

This shows up an important psychological truth about the Labour Party. About their own free-floating guilt, of original sin, around being a socialist party. And a consequent deep ribbon of fear around not trusting the electorate.

By 1992 – after the disaster of 1983, the calamity of 1987 – the Labour Party had spent years tacking rightwards, in pursuit of the kinds of voters Thatcher had managed to galvanise. They produced a tightly-costed, heavily stage-managed manifesto. They made nice, they looked the part, they were ahead in the polls for months, but on the day they still lost.

Like any two-timed lover, Labour have never trusted the electorate again. Part of the Labour brain is to believe that selling what you've got to sell just won't work, and so must be kept away from the public at all costs. You need distraction to keep your man – keep the conversation as light and frothy as possible, or else you'll lose them.

The party's media strategy doesn't seem to have changed this time around: just put the uncontroversial baubles on the table and walk away. Policies? Don't worry about those. The important point is that we're the nice people, and we do the good things.

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It's all about timbre; it's all about tone-setting. Jeremy Corbyn talking about making St George's Day a bank holiday is meant to prove that, far from a Ralph Miliband-style man who hates Britain, he is in fact a patriot. The kind of guy who could wear a suit, do up his tie and sing the national anthem.

We've even had the traditional "more bobbies on the beat" announcement from the campaign's star performer, Diane Abbott. This squadron of phantom bobbies are magicked into being at every election, and never have any reference to the needs of modern policing increasingly dominated by surveillance and computing. But that's never their point. They're there to show that they're no loony-left pushovers.


Tony Blair always felt that the only path to power was to steal the clothes of your opposition. Not only that, but to then translate their values into small uncontroversial statements that were, crucially, specific. Like any great novelist, he was the show-don't-tell guy – rather than give people something too abstract, turn it into something that will have Dave and Davina Middle England clucking over 5Live at the breakfast table of their Stevenage new-build.

It was, at heart, a statistics-led approach, the moment at which the pollsters started taking over the controls. The idea was always that the stuff that made you cluck and tut at the radio was the only thing with real cut-through to the deeply apolitical electorate you needed to reach. That your bovine workaday demographic could all rally behind a Sarah's Law, but had no time for your broad-based review of sentencing policy in the context of rehabilitation.

This was the golden age of triangulation, honed by Clinton but perfected by Blair. The left, the right, what can they agree on? That fat kids are bad, that England is a patriotic country, that people entering hospitals don't want to be fishing around their pockets for a fiver.

It hit its nadir in 2001, when the PM announced that he'd have the police frog-march ASBO-level offenders to cash machines to make them pay spot fines. Unworkable, ineffective, ugly, it had nonetheless tested well across the spectrum.

Tomorrow, the successors to Blair will be launching a manifesto as radical as any since 1983. But something of that tedium still lingers. The moral crusade and the lift music are both parts of the Labour soul. If polls are to be believed, it doesn't seem likely they'll be trusting the voters any time soon.