‘It’s the economy, stupid’. The immortal words of James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist in his 1992 successful presidential campaign, remain as true today as they were then, and perhaps are even truer in British than American politics: as long as Labour has a muddled message on the economy, it has no chance of winning a general election. Almost all of the Conservative general election campaign in 2015 was built around their ‘long-term economic’ carapace, for while they were seen as stronger on the economy, all other policy areas were untouchable. On the NHS, the line was, ‘we can’t have a strong NHS without a strong economy’, and it was very similar for every social issue. Although this is a strength, it is also a weakness: if the Tory reputation on the economy crumbles, their electability completely crumbles with it.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was the Tory lead on the economy. From way before the election campaign began, Lynton Crosby was often heard reminding top Conservatives: ‘you can’t fatten a pig on market day’. This was not a warning heeded by Labour, whose ‘fiscal responsibility lock’ was devised only when their manifesto was released. If Labour wants to erode the Conservatives’ superior economic reputation by 2020, they must start now. John McDonnell has been working on improving Labour’s economic standing, but he has gone about it in quite the wrong way; instead of consulting with top economists, he should consult with top advertising gurus. The fact that the Tories’ austerity has been widely condemned by academic economists has done them very little harm because their skill in building a narrative has been so good.
My suggestion is this: Labour ought to bring back some of the Tory posters from 2010, but with a few minor changes. One of the famous Conservative posters had a huge picture of Gordon Brown, with the message “I doubled the national debt, vote for me”, alongside it. An effective Labour poster could have the exact same message, but with a picture of David Cameron or George Osborne. The ‘Google tax’ issue is another thorn in the side of the Tories, and Labour would do well to make the most of it. A poster with the same slogan but with a picture of George Osborne handing a big bag of cash to the Google CEO would be something else that would work. As much as people dislike George Osborne, they think of him as competent, so Labour’s strategy must be to attribute the ever-growing debt to malice rather than incompetence; as much as they have tried to kill it, the idea of the Conservatives as the ‘nasty party’ is still one that lives on in the minds of many voters.
Another brilliant feature of the Conservatives’ campaign team is that they get slogans drilled into the heads of voters. They have recently switched from ‘long-term economic plan’ to the idea that Jeremy Corbyn is a ‘serious risk to our nation's security, our economy's security and your family's security’. The Twitterati might mock their slogans, but they are often very effective, especially when they are repeated so often. Labour needs similar slogans, and ones that focus on the economy are especially effective. My suggestion would be that they repeat, time after time, something like this: “The Tories are giving billions to google, they're giving billions to bankers, and they're giving billions to the billionaires, but they're not giving anything to hard-working families”. This slogan, coupled with the repeated idea that “The Tories doubled our debt”, would do wonders in eroding the Conservative lead on the economy.
One advantage of Jeremy Corbyn being the leader of the Labour Party is that the Tories have dropped their focus on the economy, and largely switched over to issues of national security. Perhaps this is because they think that there is no way that Corbyn will ever be perceived as economically competent, or perhaps it is because they think they will make more progress by attacking his foreign policy. Either way, it gives Labour some room to be the party that talks about the economy, and this is what they have to do if they want to win. The moment that Ed Miliband lost the 2015 election was when he forgot to mention the deficit in his speech to Labour conference. The single lesson that it is most important for Labour to learn is this: look after the pennies (or, at least, be perceived to be looking after them), and the votes will look after themselves.