To win again, Labour must learn a lesson from Alex Salmond's grandfather
"If you're going to say something radical, make sure you wear a suit". This is the solitary piece of advice Alex Salmond's grandfather is said to have sent him packing with as he started his career in politics thirty years ago.
As party conference season draws to an end, it's this advice which separates the two main parties in British politics, and defines their current trajectory. One side gets it, the other ignores it.
It isn't really, of course, a line about what constitutes proper dress - or at least not just. What Salmond's grandfather meant was simple: if people can pigeonhole you, they will – so don't let them. Confound expectations.
It remains as relevant as ever. Unpack why and you get to three truths that most pollsters will tell you define the ways voters engage with politics: they consume it in very small quantities, largely through TV and newspapers; they make their mind up quickly; and, most crucial of all, they filter what they see back through the lens of what they already think. If you sound and look how people expect you to, they will box you in as that, even if what you're saying is eminently sensible. So much is not about what is being said, but who is saying it.
This is difficult to absorb when most political discussion is still wedded to the idea of a rational-actor electorate. But the reality is most normal people respond to signals not details (and abnormal people in fact: most of those who read this article and tweet me furiously about it will only have bothered reading the headline and top line).
Thus a huge part of electoral politics is challenging prejudices people have about you. In this contest advantage accrues to those who can do unexpected things; the counter-intuitive. So, for instance, only a party that can convincingly present as moderate earns the right to govern as radical.
This is ultimately the fatal mistake made by the many people – including myself – who wrongly thought Ed Miliband had a shot at Number 10. Because he never ruthlessly and publicly dealt with Labour's weaknesses, particularly spending and welfare, his broader agenda never got a hearing. James Morrisargues Miliband's early years spent talking about “too far too fast”, however economically justified, just hardened for voters their own pre-existing prejudices: that Labour wanted to spend more and can't be trusted with tough decisions. Later, Miliband just switched the subject. As a result, BritainThinks found that even when he said things that polled well, voters simply asked “yes but where's the money coming from?” in a way they never did of the Conservatives.
Which brings us back to this year's party conferences.
The Conservatives spent most of their time in Manchester, as they have since May, playing to their strengths while happily, ruthlessly and publicly attempting to deal with their weaknesses among undecided voters. For “party of the rich”, see the living wage and overtures on “the workers party”; for “the nasty party” see Cameron's paeans to equality. How substantial this in practice is irrelevant, in the short term at least. It was all clipped for the news for the same reason it will have cut through with floating voters: because it's counter-intuitive. It buys them cover to be quietly radical and, in many areas, push a traditional free-market agenda Michael Howard would never have got away with.
Labour badly needs to learn this skill: presenting as moderate, governing as radical. At the moment it is adept at precisely the opposite. Windy socialist rhetoric is cranked up only to be accompanied by fairly conventional social democratic ideas. An economic policy largely the same as Ed Balls’ sent the conference hall into raptures because it was wrapped in the crotchety language of anti-austerity.
This is the surest sign of a movement in love with the sound of its own voice. Everything it did will have entrenched voters’ prejudices about them, wittingly or not. To be fair, most damningly of all, it seemed designed precisely for that purpose. Every signal was aimed at pleasing the already converted and reaffirming their virtue. If there was any talk of persuasion, it only showed through in a desire to lecture the public: “busting myths”, “nailing the lie” and so on. Not an ounce of self-reflection, or an understanding that these rights have to be earned.
To be fair, the frenzy among activists was been whipped up largely in response to a half justified grievance: that New Labour managed to be seen as moderate but didn't exploit it by governing radically enough, as the Conservatives are now, particularly when it came to political economy.
But the fact remains: Labour will not get the chance to change the country again unless it re-learns what Alex Salmond's grandfather taught him. It will not even get a hearing until it is willing to confound perceptions of it among Conservative voters in particular, as the Tories have learnt to do. Why does it deserve one?
The reason this hasn't been done is that it's not easy. It doesn't mean aping every last detail of Conservative policy – but it does mean moving closer to the small-c conservative values that run through the population of this country outside its big cities: prudence, fairness as opportunity not just outcome, quiet patriotism, contribution. At the moment the party is a world away: obsessed with an arid Keynsianism, infatuated with ideas of entitlement and embarrassed about national identity.
The change here has to run deep; it has to be more than finding the most temperate words in a thesaurus. The challenge is to renew the party's politics in a way that intrinsically deals with its weaknesses, but leaves it with a prospectus bold enough to change the country. It has to look, over and over again, like it genuinely cares about things voters don't expect it to: the deficit, waste, unfairness in the welfare system; the middle as well as the bottom, as well as being comfortable with technology and innovation. Otherwise it will never be able to broach a conversation about inequality, reforming the economy so it works in the interests of the many, or tackling vested interests. And British politics will remain what it is today: a non-competitive sport.
Who is Senator Elizabeth Warren and is she a serious US election contender?
Six years ago this month, in the bitter winter cold, 2m people crammed on to the mall of Washington DC to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama. The gritty reality of what followed – a good if not transformational presidency – make it easy to forget the spirit and energy of that day, and Obama's ascent generally. A palpable cry for change in the wake of the financial crisis then gripping the country, and for an outsider to shake up an ineffective DC establishment, swept him beyond McCain and Hilary Clinton before that.
But it's worth bringing it to the debate over his successor as Democratic nominee for 2016. There's a reason that, as the FT reports, "very few people in Washington have the clout that Senator Elizabeth Warren has right now". More than anything else, it's because she is tapping in to that same energy, and giving it greater form.
Warren has spent the last four years rallying against those on Wall Street and Capitol Hill who she blames for poisoning the American dream. Across a range of issues – the bank bailouts, credit card and mortgage regulation, student loans – she's channelled a still widespread anger at the financial crisis, giving voice to a economic anxiety held by huge swathes of America.
This anxiety if of course borne of the same forces shaping people's lives this side of the pond, despite an improving economy: stagnant wages, rising bills, a hollowing out of middle class jobs and growing inequality. Warren has argued that these are not facts of life akin to the weather, but in large part the product of rules "rigged" by an orthodoxy seizing the US political system, one kept in place through the influence of organised money. It's an orthodoxy that has sometimes thwarted Obama, but one he has also felt the need to indulge.
In short, she is the first mainstream, progressive populist to fully emerge out of post-crash politics in America.
All of which has sparked a MoveOn.org petition to draft her in to the 2016 race against Hilary Clinton, who is threatening to run again.
As a result, much of the Democratic establishment are already on manoeuvres against Warren, sniffily dismissing her a East Coast liberal bound for the same fate as Howard Dean. At first glance it's easy to sympathise with this. But there is more to Warren demanding of further attention.
For a start, she is (and speaks like) an Okie; a Southerner, hardly Democratic heartlands these days.
Despite reaching the gilded halls of Harvard (where she taught bankruptcy law), Warren came from very little. Her father was a janitor and a maintenance man, her mother a phone operator. So when she speaks about threats facing the American dream, she speaks with an authenticity the likes of Gore and Kerry never could.
More importantly, her politics are more complicated and progress beyond the traditional 'tax and spend' of the Democratic left. She is largely concerned with economic reform: breaking up and remaking the banking system, consumer protection, infrastructure. In her own words, "effective counterweights" against the interests of organised money. Before being elected in 2012, Warren set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency which has put over $4bn back in the pockets of Americans swindled by financial institutions.
In the context of tight budgets, and after a generation of trying to ameliorate inequalities through the tax system, this is the most sensible territory for the centre-left to be on.
But in many respects, Warren's themes are far more in the conservative tradition than the Democratic one: aspiration, breaking up concentrations of power, making markets work better, opposing no-strings-attached bailouts. She also supports school vouchers in the public education system.
None of which is surprising given Warren's Republican background, but all of which makes for an interesting blend of left and right that is making her slightly untouchable on Capitol Hill at the moment ("It's like we're dealing with the most popular girl in school", one bank executive recently whinged). Most importantly, it gives her the potential to speak beyond the Democratic base if she gets it right.
She is also aided by the weaknesses of her potential opponents. The GOP have long since abandoned traditional conservative thought, in favour of an unhinged worship of the already wealthy (and a dependence on their largesse).
And then there's Clinton. It isn't obvious what agenda will particularly animate her bid for the White House, or her supporters – at the moment it's just a strange cult of personality. In any event, the rising tide of anger and insecurity potentially pose a significant problem for her. Many of the questions angering Americans, certainly Democrats, today are essentially ones of economic reform. On this theme, Clinton is a status quo politician. What she thinks about these questions i'm not sure, but one suspects she doesn't think about them very much at all. They involve upsetting vested interests that a generation of Third Way politicians cut their teeth making peace with. Moreover, as Warren herself found out, her more direct ties to Wall Street compromise her.
So if Warren does decide to run, she could easily wrongfoot the presumptive nominee. In many ways, Warren is already dictating the terms of the debate. Clinton recently felt the need to make a rather half-hearted and awkward pitch to define herself against Wall Street ("The least convincing populist on earth", as one newspaper put it). Meanwhile, there are rumours even Obama himself sees Warren as his true heir, and is urging her to get in the ring.
It may not happen, of course. For a start, it isn't clear Warren even wants it or feels herself up to it. After years of stalemate in Congress under Obama, Clinton's strongest card is as an arm-twister who knows how to get things done. Warren would have to work hard to build a broad coalition of support, and strengthen her hand on foreign policy. But the elements are certainly there to make things very interesting. If you're looking for a political earthquake, it is worth at least keeping an eye on the American left this year.