I am trying to separate my political and personal writing somewhat. So I have written about my 2021 highs and lows in a Medium post here. I haven’t made any final decisions about what to do about this Substack. A few of you were kind enough to get in touch and say you would be happy to pay but I need to think about what a paid subscription would mean. In the meantime, for the month of January, I will be going down to fortnightly free missives while I think about how to offer something paid that would be worth paying for (not sure my rambling alone will cut it!). In the meantime…
Labour is going into 2022 in a pretty good position. They are not only ahead in all the polls, but seemingly are doing better even than the national average in polls in the key 125 seats they need to win in England and Wales.
In part, this is - of course - because the Tories are currently and spectacularly imploding. More than a temporary bump, the glut of troubles, from the under-counted fuel crisis in October to the loss of North Shropshire has not only created a new atmosphere around Boris that he might not be the Teflon-coated (and is there a phrase more likely to bring a politician down than that one? It was used on Blair, on Trump and now on Boris) permanent winner they thought they were getting.
Unlike the government’s previous troubles it is less clear where the rescue plan for this one is going to come from. the ‘rally round the flag’ effect has long since worn off, you can’t have a second vaccine bounce and even if the long-delayed Levelling Up White Paper were absolutely chock full of good things (things Sunak is increasingly unwilling to pay for) very little will be delivered or seen or noticed any time soon. On the other hand, it could be as bad as the Social Care White Paper which started life as a damp squib and then, thanks again to Treasury interference, it was revealed that its singular purpose - to stop less affluent homeowners losing their homes - had been largely negated.
So there is a real opening for Labour here. And they have pledged to make this the year the party becomes not just ready to go into an election, but ready to go into government.
So what should they do to deliver this? Here are five key areas they need to work on.
The first thing that needs to happen is work to improve systems, recruitment and morale at head office. From what I hear the latter is extremely low. This isn’t a factional complaint either - I’ve heard this from left and right. While LOTO seems to be working a lot better of late, this isn’t true of Southside which has lost a lot of good and valuable staff - from all factions and none - and who have a fair few horror stories to tell that are not related to just one Leader or General Secretary.
Labour *must* learn to hire for skillset and not loyalty. Putting the time in does not automatically make you good at your job (though we should better value those who have both skills and institutional memory). Not challenging failures and keeping your head down should not be a successful career path when failures are rife. Equally, questioning should not be seen as insubordination but as a sign of commitment and determination for the project to succeed.
There are people in the Labour Party and externally whose professional roles in life are to think about how workplaces can be made better. Labour should be modelling best practice in hiring, management, training, retention, promotion and development for our staff. It should be core to our belief that work should be a positive and fulfilling experience and if that is to be true, it has to start with us.
A motivated, high-moral staff at all levels will be more productive and better able to serve at the high-pressure moments around elections and in the long term as we respond to fluctuating fortunes and currents.
All of the above is all very well, but it costs money (there are some ways around this through donations in kind from highly experienced volunteer members in shaping HR policies etc, but it will still need a regular and decent income to pay the quality and quantity of staff needed to run the happy and successful ship outlined above.
Over my lifetime there have been two different approaches to fundraising that are always pitched as mutually incompatible. They get tied to different forms of politics unnecessarily. High-value donors are seen as the centrist way. Union donations as the hard left way.
Both have their place. But we need to get away from the transactional mindset between such donors and the party that this so often led to.
I will write more on unions and their future this year and this isn’t the place to go into depth. But as all three of the really big affiliated unions have new leadership they should be seeking to forge new ways of working with Labout that are deeper than buying leaflets and influence. The link should be a vital living thing that can and will be fractious, but can and should be productive in so many better ways.
At present at least two of the largest affiliated unions (GMB and Unite) are talking a lot about the withdrawal of funding to the party. Not completely but a reduction in the war chest and less reliance on them to bail the party out. I think this is right for those unions, but what I don’t think this should come with is a commensurate loosening of their influence in the Party. However, I do think that needs to go both ways. Labour and the Unions should have a partnership that works together in a less aggressive, less macho dick-swinging way and actually finds useful and interesting ways to forge new ideas for a unionised, prosperous productive modern economy. This will mean both sides changing internally and the relationship becoming collaborative rather than transactional.
Meanwhile, we need to be equally conscious for very different reasons not to have a transactional relationship with high-value donors. If people with money to give believe in our cause and want to help us without strings attached - that’s wonderful and to be welcomed. But we are not the Tories. We cannot sell influence and access because we believe in equality of those things as a prerequisite for the redistribution of wealth and power. There is and can never be a price to be heard in the Labour Party.
On the other hand, Labour could do a lot better at behaving like a commercial organisation. I was about to complain about the paucity of goods available at the Labour shop. When I went to check that this hadn’t got better since I last looked, I got this page.
That’s not great.
Activists are an odd old bunch. But they’re a dedicated odd old bunch. We buy stuff for ourselves. We buy it for each other. If it weren’t for the bookstall at Labour Party conference, I wouldn’t know what to get my Dad for his birthday year after year. But I’d rather be getting him fun and interesting merchandise from an official Labour shop that would both make him happy and put some money in the party’s coffers. It wouldn’t solve all of the party’s problems by any means. But having some commercial sensibilities can be an important good in and of itself. I started my career in telesales and there have been countless times where being taught to sell - really sell (not hard sell) - has been an invaluable skill in my political and journalistic career.
Labour also talks a good game on the value of small value gifts from the membership (which are essential and to be further encouraged) but give little thought beyond increasingly shrill emails as to how to both make this happen and how to utilise a membership exceptionally happy to give their time and skills in meaningful ways that could have far greater value than £5 a month.
Labour has a really wide range of members all of whom - from those for whom Momentum is too weak tea to those who think Labour to Win are soft lefties - have enough in common to have joined the party and hope for its electoral success. Engagement will wax and wane over time as the party’s leadership and politics fluctuate but the essential values remain pretty unchanged. And while some would rather rip your head off than admit it - those values are largely shared if frequently differently interpreted.
2021 was a difficult time for the party’s relationship with its membership. There have been - mostly rightly - a great deal of high profile internal discipline cases. This was a necessary phase after a torrid few years, but the result has been to send people into deeply factional corners.
This has two negative effects on the party. The first is that it is continuing Labour’s appalling habit of looking at its navel. Talking to ourselves about ourselves - in anger, competition or even solidarity - is unhelpful when we should be looking outwards to the public.
But secondly, instead of simply focusing on the members either as a problem to be solved or a drone army to be sent to do the bidding of their betters, Labour members should and could be seen as a vastly valuable resource.
We have members who are experts in the law, business, housing, education, environmental policy, science and health - and these are just the issue-based socialist societies. There are also experts in a great deal else just waiting to be tapped. An empowered membership with a space to work through sensible, implementable, workable and transformative policies wouldn’t quite make up for the resource deficit of not having the civil service - but my God it would help. And working on policy as a collaborative collective shouldn’t be the be all and end all - we need to ensure the buy-in and engagement of the wider public. But facilitating that engagement throughout a parliament would mean a heavily message tested, implementable policy platform from day one of an election campaign that already has public buy-in. There seems to be a rule you have to offer the electorate a surprise come the three-week campaign. Maybe we could surprise them this time by trusting them?
While Labour was not in the ascendancy, Starmer has often been accused of not being visible enough. Roy Jenkins once described Tony Blair’s task in 1997 as “like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”. I recognise this in Starmer’s cautious approach and it also suits his ‘steady as she goes’ nature.
But sometimes this caution can feel like a hangover from previous leaderships (over many years) fear of ridicule. This is something the Tories don’t have. And they’re largely right. I was listening to Politico’s excellent Westminster Insider podcast episode on the 2019 election recently and they had Isaac Levido - who was in charge of the Tory campaign - on talking about stunts. Especially the Get Brexit Done bulldozer.
His point was that yes, it was a bit silly. But it absolutely forced their message back on prime time news coverage. And clever insiders taking the piss on Twitter didn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the power of that.
I remembered hearing someone from Labour say that there were many in Labour HQ who were taking the piss out of the Tories “for only having one message”. Well, who’s laughing now? Message discipline, when it is the right message, is important. Embarrassing and boring for those who have to deliver it day in and day out, sure. But if you can get over that embarrassment and either have more self-belief or fake it until you do, this will reap dividends.
Labour need a clear message that offers hope for a better tomorrow. The Tory bashing is fun, but not necessary. Labour need to make the electorate want to vote *for* them, not just against something else. We have to talk about the future. We have to make that concrete and both desirable and achievable.
The last reshuffle came at just the right time to take advantage of the Tory implosion. All of a sudden there were several high performing media voices ready to go out and talk to journalists and through them the electorate. This gang of voices is a good model for what can and should happen elsewhere in the party.
I am encouraged by reports that the next generation of potential candidates is being vetted not for factional allegiance but for competence and their ability to connect properly with a broad electorate, not a fringe cause. This should please and inform decision making by all factions. Competence is not a factional value. I’ve seen great campaigners and brilliant MPs from all parts of the party. And I’ve seen the opposite. It does no one any good to have - to take one seat for example - either Keith Vaz from the right or Claudia Webbe from the left having strings pulled for or by them. Look at where that has got us.
We need to have a basic set of competencies that we expect of MPs and factions that want to advance their politics should use, strengthen and engage with this to make sure that their voices are best represented by the best people to do so.
Finally, Keir needs to build up media support that is more than luke warm. That means outreach. The Corbynites talked about building an alternative media - and to their credit, they did that, with sites of their own, but equally importantly supportive (sometimes too uncritical) voices well-salted through the centre-left media. Kier should not want unadulterated cheerleaders. But he should have people who he and his team can regularly count on not only to amplify his message but to think and write about how and why what they are doing might work. There are a few, they need many more.
I run a political and communications consultancy called Political Human. Please get in touch if you are looking for political or media consultancy advice, strategic communication and campaign planning, ghostwriting, copywriting, editing, training or coaching.
You can read some lovely things that some of my clients have said here.
I am also a playwright and director. My debut piece No Cure For Love can be seen here.
Work on my next piece Triggered is continuing apace with a view to staging it next summer. I do not have a fundraising mechanism for this yet, but a coffee to keep me going would be welcome.
Share your thoughts
As I said at the top I am still hinking a lot about this newsletter and how to give and get the most from it. I really like writing it and the feedback I get from lots of you on it. But while some of you are lovely enough to buy me the occasional coffee, it takes up a lot more time than it pays the bills.
I am looking at different options and I would really appreciate your thoughts. I think the free newsletter will almost certainly go fortnightly in the new year.
There is an option on Substack to have paid content alongside the free. Would anyone sign up for this? This would probably mean you would get two more emails a month than free subscribers. But I might look at doing other types of content such as a live chat, AMAs (that seemed quite popular) and maybe discussions between myself and interesting/cool people that can be watched and interacted with.
What do you lot think? What do you like? What don’t you like? What have you seen elsewhere that really works? Please, please let me know your thoughts. There’s no point doing this without you!
What I’ve been up to
I reviewed Gatsby: The Musical. It had a great deal of glamour but some terrible sound issues. It was heavy on romance and light on the social commentary at the heart of the original novel.
If you would like me to attend and review your performance, please get in touch on the email below.
I wrote a chapter on William Henry Harrison (which may make the the premier UK-based expert on this rather obscure president) for Iain Dale’s book The Presidents. You can hear Iain and I manage to talk about this for more than quarter of an hour here, which is quite the achievement as he died after only a month in office.
Finally I wrote a New Year piece on how Labour members - particularly those on the ascendent centrist tendency - should treat each other for the Independent. As one of my resolutions is to be published more this year - this was a great start!
Questions, comments and arguments are very welcome. Insults will get you summarily blocked on every platform that no longer hosts Donald Trump. I’m at email@example.com or on Twitter (far too often) at @EmmaBurnell_.