Why Labour’s Falkirk row doesn’t matter – and why it matters a lot

A standard rule of commentary is that, whenever a major news story comes along, writers of all political sides waste no time in declaring that it demonstrates how they were right all along.

The good news is, I’m only going to do that for the first half of this post. Feel free to skip to the bit under the second sub-head if you’re bored of that kind of thing.

Why Falkirk doesn’t matter: no-one’s noticed

Labour’s Falkirk troubles will need little introduction to the kind of supremely wise and good-looking person who reads a blog about public opinion. In fact, it’s been hard to avoid for anyone who reads the politics pages or is into political Twittering. Even before Tom Watson’s resignation, it was easily the dominant political story.

But that’s where appearances deceive. Everyone who reads Dan Hodges’s blogs or watches Prime Minister’s Questions should remember how different their experience is from the vast majority of the country’s

As usual, this is a political story that feels far more game-changing to the politerati than it does to the rest of the country. From the blogs, tweet and briefings, you’d think this was revolutionising the political views of the nation. But in reality there’s been no discernible change.

The proportion who’d vote for Labour, in YouGov’s tracker, is 39-40%: as it’s been since mid-April. The underlying perceptions of the parties haven’t changed either according to YouGov: during June, Labour lost a couple of points in being seen as able to take tough and unpopular decisions, but over the same time it actually improved its score in being seen as less old and tired, and also in having moved on and left its past behind.

So anyone who says that Falkirk is hurting Labour needs to come up with the evidence. So far there’s nothing to show that the public cares.

Why Falkirk matters a lot: opportunity cost

But there’s another side to it. I used to work for an agency that was set up to run political campaigns. One of our slogans, particularly when we were talking to the private sector and wanted to flex our political credentials, was “if you’re not winning, you’re losing”. I’ve no idea who came up with the line, but it perfectly describes why Falkirk really matters for Labour.

Even if Falkirk drags on and even if the party becomes more split about it, the problem for Labour wouldn’t be direct damage to its reputation. It’s a process story that can’t be easily summarised to someone who doesn’t care about process stories (that is, nearly everyone): Labour’s poll scores won’t take a hit. The problem is the opportunity cost.

Alastair Campbell recently delivered a brilliant speech about strategic communications (transcript here). The key part for Labour is this:

You need strategy and one that is so clear, so strong, so thought through that nobody can be in doubt as to what it is. Nobody internally, nobody externally. And the best strategies can be communicated in a word, a phrase, a paragraph, a page, a speech, and a book.

The word – Modernisation.
The phrase – New Labour New Britain.
The paragraph – Many not the few, future not the past, leadership not drift, education the No 1 priority. …

We had three years with TB as leader before an election. My goal was that by the time of the election, when his face came on screen, or people saw that slogan, they had an idea what was coming, regardless of what the newsreader or any other intermediary said.

For all the work Miliband’s team have done in keeping the party together, winning and retaining 2010 Lib Dem voters, and consistently leading the Tories, no-one would claim that he’s reached the point where, as soon as he comes on screen, people know what he’s going to say.

It’s still 22 months to the election: time enough to get to that point, but not long enough to have time to waste. Every week Labour spends talking to itself is a week when it’s not communicating a vision for why it should run the country. That’s the main threat from Falkirk, and why the best outcome for the party is one where Miliband turns it into a definition of what he stands for.


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