What will matter, what will work?

Labour need to remember how to do, build and achieve collective politics with the collective that exists - not the one they might wish for.

Here’s a truth that everyone in politics sort of knows and almost never acknowledges: Almost everything you care about, deeply and passionately, doesn't matter to vast swathes of people. Sometimes not at all, sometimes not very much. Most of the time not enough to shift their perceptions in the slightest, never mind being an issue so persuasive as to get them to vote for you on the basis of your stance on it. If you’re very unlucky (or really bad at understanding campaigning) you will shift them in the opposite direction.

Does this mean you should stop caring about your minority interest? Absolutely not. But it does mean you should think differently about how you might go about working towards your goals.

The good thing about most people not really caring about what you do is that if you manage to achieve it, they won’t really notice. You will have achieved your goal for the people who desperately need it, albeit without large scale public acclaim. The question is what matters more: doing change or being seen to want change. these two are very, very different concepts.

At the moment, the Labour Party is widely viewed as a miasma of special interests fighting among themselves over concepts the voting public are either baffled by or actively disinterested in. This was not helped by the 2019 ‘Oprah-style’ manifesto (you get a policy and you get a policy and you get a policy!). But it is also not helped by the current narrative within the party or the oddly quiet approach to policy.

Labour has quite a lot of policy. Quite a lot of it would make those people who are loudest about their belief in the political betrayal of Starmer quite happy. But Labour seems to have an approach of using policy like your gran’s best china. It exists in theory, but only at the back of a cupboard gathering dust and no one knows quite who it is actually for as it is never brought out and shown off.

And while Labour does have a lot of pretty good policies - from a fiscal framework largely developed from that of John McDonnell to a Green New Deal - what they don’t have is a coherent narrative that threads through that policy and speaks to the everyday concerns of the people who may or may not vote for them.

This is how we get stuck in cul-de-sacs of conversation about things only we care about. This is how we end up demonstrating against things rather than changing them for the better.

We need to convince the country we are on their side. To do that we need to talk about the things they care about, not the things we wished they cared about. Collectivism has to be about common ground. Sure, when that is established you can use it to have the trickier conversations where they may be levels of disagreement. But you have to establish that first.

At the moment, the left seems determined to reject any and all common ground in deference to focusing on disagreements where they feel morally superior. Let me be clear: This is the least possible socialist approach to change you can have. It’s entirely the wrong way round. It is prizing individual superiority over the achievement of the collective.

Labour can have a really important story to tell about how the UK as a collective is going to work together to build a successful and vibrant post-carbon economy; About a public realm that works for the good of us all; About the opportunities that come with greater equality for those who are currently struggling, not just for those at the bottom, but for all of us.

Labour should be telling a story of the bonds that unite us, with a policy platform that links wage growth to economic prosperity and a sustainable future with a better today. We should always be the party of the many but we should reject the idea that we are not for the few. Because that ‘few’ is all too easy for voters to identify into. That few is all too often seen by the many as them. Labour is for everyone - because when society benefits we all benefit.

I know I have been a bit scathing and despairing the last few emails. But I don’t buy into the ‘Labour is dead’ narrative. It’s just forgotten how to do politics. That’s recoverable. Labour can, should and, indeed, does still have plenty to offer when compared to the slick shysters in power at the moment. We just need to remember how to tell and sell. We need to talk to the country, not ourselves. We need to listen to the country, not ourselves. When we do that, that is when we will really be the party of the many.

What I’ve been up to

The day job has been absolutely overwhelming this week (in a wonderful “oh look maybe I *can* pay the mortgage” kind of a way). I will have a bumper crop of things to share next week, but at the moment can only offer a preview of what I will be up to.

This evening (Saturday) I will be on Times Radio with the wonderful Ayesha Hazarika to discuss what does and doesn't have political cut through in the post-pandemic world.

On Monday, I will be ‘in conversation’ with Jon Cruddas about his book The Dignity of Labour for the Fabian Society. Details on how to join in here.

I will also be editing Left Foot Forward on Tuesday. If you have a press release or idea for a story, please email me: emma@leftfortforward.org.

Reading List

I am becoming increasingly obsessed with the Preston Model and the difference it could make to many of the areas I discussed above. Here’s a great piece by council leader Matthew Brown about why it works for their community and politically.

I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted Nora Ephron’s life. But my God I wish mine had been scripted by her. This lovely piece by Sarah Ditum on what would have been 80 this week is a nice antidote to the excess of Dylanology that has been pervasive despite him not having produced anything much good since the 1970s whereas Ephron has much more to show for the era during which I have been alive.


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 emmaburnell@gmail.com or on Twitter (far too often) at @EmmaBurnell_