Two parties, only one story

Full disclosure: Week before last, I voted for Labour. I didn’t think Labour’s chances were great but I certainly expected the result to yield decent position in a coalition government with new voices and opinions. Instead, I awoke to the almighty shock of a Conservative majority. Cue anger, despair and a sense of hopelessness on the left, while the Conservatives confidently get on with their ambitious plans for the first 100 days.

There are a lot of reasons why Labour lost but the simple and most obvious one is that they had no story. The Conservatives did and they stuck to it ruthlessly.

One of the first rules of political narrative is: if you don’t like the conversation, change it. For the Conservatives, that conversation was any hint of a referendum on the Coalition’s record. Lacking anything that could be positioned as a compelling achievement, (Obama’s memorable second term mantra “Osama is dead and GM is alive” remains a favourite of mine) they fought hard to ensure Cameron could never be grilled on this point except in passing – as part of a chaotic septet debate format for instance. And so it proved. There was no winner but the incumbent hadn’t lost. Having successfully swerved the opportunity for the narrative to be about a failed coalition, they set about flipping the script.

The Conservative narrative wasn’t exactly inspirational or visionary but it was well-suited to a nation hardened by a long recession and anxious about the future. Plumping for gloom rather than hope, they made it very clear that the job of fixing the economy wasn’t finished and that a Labour vote would be a vote for economic chaos – that whatever you thought about them and their record, the alternative was far, far worse. Cynical? Perhaps. Effective? Absolutely. But then again, perhaps they were calling it like it was because Labour offered nothing terribly memorable in response. It failed to land any memorable arguments about rising inequality, a creaky NHS and the excesses of capitalism – in spite of those issues being hugely resonant. Why? Because it simply didn’t hang together with a simple narrative thread. A “Better Plan for a Better Future” is what all the parties were ostensibly selling in one form or another.

In the absence of any meaningful narrative we were left with the tyranny of small differences – which the Conservatives expertly exploited. Ed’s difficulties with bacon sandwiches, his decadent two kitchen lifestyle and whispers of political fratricide conveniently filled the space in our brains where any kind of opposition narrative should have rightfully sat. Because Labour’s platform was so indistinct from the Conservative agenda, headline-grabbing tactics like a price freeze on energy companies were belatedly trotted out and quickly characterised by Conservatives as tin pot Trotskyism. Indeed, they were half-assed attempts at a meaningful position to rectify an utterly depressing and inexcusable lack of any discernable difference prior to that point. It was unsurprisingly, too little too late.

At the heart of Cameron’s campaign was Lynton Crosby – a man whose stock as a campaign strategist is now at an all time high. As he says himself, “Message matters most. In a campaign what you are trying to do is either change or reinforce some perception that people have in order to influence their behaviour… In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotions win. You can have a rational position but it is nothing without an emotional connection.” The entire Tory campaign was designed to reinforce the most damaging and negative perceptions of Labour as policymakers and turn Ed’s chronic lack of charisma into something far more sinister. Textbook stuff, really. Not an inspiring story but a very sticky one. And Labour played its part of loser by offering no real policy differences, no real emotional hook or story of optimism to justify a vote for change. Change to what?

The biggest irony is that even now in defeat, Labour remains as storyless as it was when it was supposedly in the ascendancy three weeks ago. The Conservatives continue to fill the narrative gap with stories of a reckless drift to the left when in fact the differences between the parties were more akin to two folically-challenged men fighting over a comb. Worse still for Labour, it seems bent on defining its new mission within an ever more suffocating Conservative narrative – pathologically unable or unwilling to change the conversation to anything that might connect with the voting public and suggest that they have some grasp on life in Britain today. Labour is left slumped on the pavement at daybreak with no shoes, nodding and mumbling something about a return to the centre while the rest of us, Labour supporters or not, would really just prefer to talk about something else.

Editor’s note: I asked the author if it was possible to end this on a more hopeful note. I’ve yet to hear back.