Thanks to Rob Salmond and Josie Pagani, it is now clear that Labour’s pitch to the centre is an intentional strategy. That is helpful as now perhaps we can have a reasonable discussion about how well it’s working, and what else might work better.
Certainly in the internet age, the days when the campaign committee could meet to plan Labour’s strategy under high secrecy have changed. I used to call it the “onion committee” – there was the inner layer, the inner inner layer, and the inner inner inner layer. I could be in any or all at any one time depending on events. Now just like having more say on the leadership, we can all have a say on the strategy. And all in the open. How refreshing. There’s been a lot of good contributions already.
Rob Salmond offers us a few facts/factoids to help the discussion.
He says any focus group or survey-based analysis of the profile of non-voters is largely useless. I agree totally; which is why our database of non-voters in 2005 was comprehensive, not survey based, and was rich in information. What it enabled us to do, and what was crucial in our win, was to communicate a personal message to previous non-voters that was relevant to their particular circumstances. Relevance was the key. Turnout went up. Labour won.
However in contrast to Rob I think communication strategies based on surveys of ideological preference are equally useless. The conceptual gap between location on the scale and relevance of message is just too great. Planning becomes guesswork and messaging reactive.
Rob has a background as a poll analyst. In my experience of reading polls and listening to pollsters, which goes back to 1984, poll data is one thing, interpretation of its significance and more importantly how it may be used to shape political communication is another. The latter is far more important.
Talking of Labour’s centrist targets, Rob offers a few ways to “woo these folk.”
Labour can moderate its own policy, alter which policies it emphasizes in the political debate, try to alter voters’ perceptions of National, or try to convince centrists to change their issue opinions and even their ideology. The last strategy, of convincing voters they are flat out wrong, is a favorite among activists of all stripes, because it requires change by others but no compromise or change on their own part. Among the issues that that strategy, however, is that it is very difficult to pull off on a large scale and in a short timeframe.
None of these appeal. Neither are they likely to be successful. The most productive option by far is to have something relevant to say to voters. The great tragedy of Josie Pagani’s truck-driver anecdote is that she didn’t appear to have anything to say when he said “no-one is there for me.” But she was absolutely right about something else she said about the last campaign:
We didn’t sound aspirational, we sounded miserable. We were turning up on people’s doorsteps telling them their lives were gloomy. And anyone who has ever been poor knows the last thing you want is someone telling you your life is crap.
In my view, Josie’s drawn the wrong conclusions from her own experience. In what is presumably Rob’s moderating policy option, attacking teacher and beneficiary straw men isn’t aspirational. It’s telling them they’re all crap. And it’s no answer to the truck-driver’s challenge.
The trouble is Labour stlll sounds miserable. Using another of Rob’s options they seem to be trying to alter voters’ perceptions of National, by relentless oppositional criticism of what National’s doing wrong. The problem with this is that it creates the impression that they don’t know what to do about it themselves. National is doing a good enough job of getting it wrong all by itself. It doesn’t need a lot of extra help.
Rob makes a crucial point about the importance of timeframes. The next election is now a little over two years away. At some stage Labour has to look and sound like an alternative government, with relevant policies and messages that resonate with the teacher, the truckdriver, and the beneficiary. Right now would be a good time to start getting it together.