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Against ‘Command and Control’

One way to get trusted is to tell the truth. Jeremy was ‘off message’ from the moment he was elected in 1983 (before the phrase ‘off message’ even existed), but that did not stop him being elected Leader of what is now the largest party in Western Europe. Voters are not dumb – above anything else they simply crave ‘authentic’. If you have the world’s best policies (charging private schools VAT to pay for school dinners is a pretty good one) but no-one believes or trusts you, then there is little point in fighting Elections. Jeremy’s time as Leader is a great opportunity for the party to change the way it communicates.

A situation that began with Peter Mandelson creating a communications machine to respond to Thatcher’s political success in the eighties has ended with party representatives often behaving like robots (and many would say we now select robots) – and voters pick up on it when politicians robotically simply tow a party line and so they distrust us.  Our party more than ever needs leaders with radical ideas leading fresh debate – not robots.

When he became Leader Jeremy said “things can, and they will, change”. Now is the time for more of that change. The situation in Scotland has radically changed the Westminster political balance. The UKIP threat has changed the balance in England/Wales marginals. Brexit began as a bottom up grass-roots movement that led to our greatest change since 1975. At the same time as this radical political ‘paradigm shift’, the impression of total uniformity required by a centralised command and control system has pretty much become technological impossibility. Despite their best efforts to be forever on message, with just a couple of Google clicks and a bit of diligence a journalist, a party whip or a political opponent can find all sorts of apparent deviation from the party line by virtually all our senior politicians.

To regain public trust, there are a numbers of ways things could change. One way might be to make manifestos legal documents. The majority who (wrongly) distrust everything politicians say would be stunned if they realised that most manifestos are mostly carried out – there may be weasel words in some instances (‘if we have a political majority…, if resources allow…’), but that applies to all legal contracts when we buy things as consumers. Recently we saw the Tories maintain public confidence when Hammond reversed the budget commitment on National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed to uphold their manifesto. Manifestos are anyway written in the knowledge that politicians could be held to them. If they were a legal document, they would be written even more carefully and, more importantly, widely trusted. (The Electoral Commission, for example, might oversee the process to stop it being too legalistic). The thought that politicians might end up in the nick – in reality, it would only happen once in a blue moon if a politician truly deserved it – would surely increase public trust in manifestos. The biggest single disaster for the Lib Dems in the last 20 years as they went from nowhere to government and back almost to nowhere, was breaking their ‘Pledge’ on tuition fees.

Another suggestion to regain public trust might be to formally and culturally loosen party control. In his Conference Speech, or in a speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Jeremy could underline that we are a democracy so henceforward criticising the leadership’s policies will not be criticised – it is democratic debate. On the other side of politics, in his recent autobiography, Ken Clarke, twice nearly elected Leader of the Conservative party, makes clear his own ‘Corbyn-like’ disdain for being given a party line. There are frequent discussions about the nature of broadcasting, and either Jeremy, or better still a cross-party alliance, should agree with broadcasters that while critical examination of policies is the life-blood of democracy, permanently disparaging politicians merely puts off voters. Broadcasters are actually very keen on supporting democracy (getting rid of political programmes and replacing them with sitcom repeats would save them a lot of money and hassle, while at the same time increasing the number of viewers in those self-same slots). In recent years, political interviews have been more ‘gaff-ocratic’ than democratic. If a politician says one thing that can be interpreted as veering away from a party line (a line that probably only six people fully understand anyway) then the Westminster village blogosphere and social media can go wild, feeding off a frequently meaningless media frenzy. A few apparatchiks in party headquarters (some may enjoy the control freaky power) are unhappy but outside the Westminster village, people simply do not care. Perhaps to the surprise of the ‘village’, the world has not ended since members of the shadow cabinet defied the three-line Brexit whip and stayed on in their posts. The Daily Mail may have called it ‘chaos’, but to many Labour supporters and potential supporters it was just Westminster village background noise.

An end to Mandelsonian command and control would of course be tough – especially for a Labour party accustomed to being spoon-fed lines which have to be learnt as if for an exam, and it would certainly require intelligent comradely contributions to our thinking in public. The Tories were given the ‘non-fact’ to repeat in all political interviews that Labour ‘over-spent’ till by the time of the last Election it became an accepted truth. The Tories would say that our much-repeated line that the NHS is “not safe in their hands” became an accepted truth after the Labour spin-machine kept on repeating it (there is a ‘grid’ where party political machines try to control the daily news agenda, which naturally can have the effect of making broadcasters want to talk about anything but the parties’ news agenda). Thinking ‘what do I think?’ before answering a question on TV is not something the current generation of ‘robot politicians’ have been trained for. Obviously many of Labour’s current ‘rules of engagement’ should remain. Throughout his long career, Jeremy has always called on people to support Labour, even at the height of Blairism. Politicians should always support their side’s budgets. Personal insults towards your own side will always be newsworthy (and unwise as well as uncomradely) and can inevitably dominate the tweetosphere.

A pervasive sense of command and control is now Labour’s culture. I can recall as a member of party staff endless occasions where elected members felt unhappy about going on the media to talk on areas (where they had quite enough to say) until they had spoken to the relevant spad, or even assistant to a spad (who had frequently not had to think through policy to the level of detail that worried that member!) As I sit as a backbench councillor in a Council where Labour has a huge majority, on peripheral issues I could disagree with my leadership in public. It would not matter at all, in my view. I could but I do not because I am culturally Labour and only air policy disagreements with colleagues privately. Our party is currently the largest in Western Europe, highly dynamic yet low in the opinion polls. A few years ago we were where the Tories are now (a moribund shrinking political party, but high in the polls). We do not now need the command and control analogue solutions of the nineties at this crucial moment in the party’s history.  Many senior party staff and politicians have for some time been privately (!) critical of the damage Labour’s command and control has caused.

A political party does not need a line on everything. In power, of course it needs coherent government, and to get that it needs an agreed manifesto, but on most issues in opposition, – and on very many in government – open debate is of itself entirely harmless. Opponents can shout ‘shambles’ till they are blue (or orange) in the face but we should shout back, on the front foot, that we are the honest party, they are the old-fashioned centralised spin machine era.

In one major announcement indicating a gear change in our politicians’ relationships with people, Labour could announce a raft of measures to change the nature of politics. The above are just some possible ways for Labour to become more trusted. Some or all may not work, and all need to be openly discussed, refined and improved before they could possibly work. Others will have better ideas.

What is clear is that in an age where both politics and communication have changed, Jeremy has a unique opportunity to try to change political communication for the better.

Dave Poyser joined Labour in 1977. He is a Councillor in Islington North, prior to stints as Press Officer for the Socialist MEPs and Labour MEPs in Brussels totalling five years. Previously he was an Executive Producer in UK television.

14 Comments

  1. Robin Edwards says:

    Actually a political party especially one that espouses to be the tribune of the people does need a line on everything but Jeremy ignores the big political questions and simply deals with bread and butter questions. And his approach is entirely demagogic promising all manner of things without any notion of how they might be achieved. Certainly there is no sense that these things would require any sort of struggle other than getting elected to the Westminster Parliament. This unrealism will hand power back to the right who will offer reformism without reforms and the Labour Party will no longer be the biggest party in Europe but entirely obliterated. Good, a radical alternative can then be built if the opportunists haven’t entirely queered the pitch.

  2. James Martin says:

    The problem here is that we (the Labour Party left) still haven’t worked out how to achieve the most basic of tasks, but I strongly suspect at the heart of that is a failure to agree on what we are.

    Do we want to make capitalism better or replace it? If the former then how much does that involve crapping on the working class and poor from a great height as countless Labour councils have been doing for years now by implementing cit after cut, job loss after job loss and without even bothering anymore with some ritual hand-wringing – I assume a great deal given Corbyn and McDonnell have made it very clear that local councilors must not fight back.

    And how do we balance the national budget to make capitalism well again? How many teachers and nurses do we put on the dole to continue to pay for Trident WMD’s?

    Because I don’t see the problem as communication here, bit of policy. Yes, the leaders office has appeared to be an embarrassing shambles far too often, stuffed full as it has appeared to have been in the recent past with public school educated eejits, but that is secondary to the politics, and sadly the politics are in a very bad way indeed.

  3. Richard MacKinnon says:

    James,
    Do I detect a little insecurity? Is there a hint of an identity crisis in your comment?
    “The problem here is that we (the Labour Party left) still haven’t worked out how to achieve the most basic of tasks, but I strongly suspect at the heart of that is a failure to agree on what we are.”
    That sounds bad. Whats to be done? Who are we? You might find it helpful to read a comment I posted here on Leftfutures to JohnP, April 7, 2017 at 3:47 pm on an article , Postcapitalism: A belated review. Apr 6th, 2017 by Phil Burton-Cartledge. I make the case in the comment, rather convincingly I have been told, that Socialism is dead. Have a read, it might make your deliberations that wee bit easier.

    With regard to another of your questions, I think I may be of help. “And how do we balance the national budget to make capitalism well again?”. Thats as they say these days James a no brainer. What you do, is first of all collect all the taxes and count the receipts, VAT, income tax, corporation tax, all of them. Then you look at the essential out goings, the unavoidable bills that will get the country into trouble if they are not paid. The first of these is the interest on national debt. Debt run up by previous governments, usually Labour it has to be said, remember he with the moral compass, Gordon Brown, he liked spending money he never actually had. Any way after you have set aside cash to pay for the essentials you look at whats left and divide it up amongst the less essential services like the NHS and schools. Its as simple as that, that is how you make capitalism well again.
    PS James, am I right in saying my reference to Gordon Brown has got you thinking that there is a basic immorality in what he did? To borrow money to spend on projects in his term in office, to make him look good with the voters but without any intention of paying it back, instead fully aware that the money he borrowed would have to be paid back by future generations. If so,
    I think that was unfair as well. How are future generations going to pay for their schools and hospitals if they have to first of all have to pay off Gordon Brown’s borrowing?
    Gordon was a bit of a rotter when you think about it. Always banging on about his moral compass. I think he new what he was doing, but it didnt stop him, and he being a son of the manse too. Some people these days James, its hard to know who you can trust.

    1. James Martin says:

      Except don’t let facts get in the way of your idiocy Richard. You know, like the fact that the last Labour government had reduced the national debt as a percentage of GDP to its lowest level since WWII before the international financial crisis hit in 2008. Facts like the Tories have massively increased the national debt – in fact Richard don’t you think that there is a basic immorality in what the Tories have done, all that increase in national debt but unlike the last Labour government this shower have nowt to show for it?

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        I dont accept your figures James. When Brown left office, borrowing, the deficit, was 150B/annum. Now, after 6 years of Tory government it is down to about half that. Under the Tories we are still borrowing about 1.5B per week.
        And don’t tell me Brown had to bale out the banks with 500B of tax payers money. He didn’t. He could have let them go to the wall. Instead, what he did was guarantee the middle classes their savings account. So much for the redistribution of wealth

      2. Richard MacKinnon says:

        When it comes down to it James it doesn’t really matter what we think, the only thing that matters is what the voters think, and now we are going to find out.
        Im looking forward to discussing again with you in early June.
        Any predictions?

  4. would comrade Poyser like to identify the ‘members of the shadow cabinet who defied the three line brexit whip and stayed in their cabinet posts’? As far as my press cuttings indicate, only Clive Lewis of the then shadow cabinet defied the whip and then resigned to become a back bencher.

    The real lack of trust was a party which had campaigned against Brexit then imposed a command to vote for it. The Lib Dems who had always been against and the SNP likewise voted against. The Tories and the sole UKIP MP voted in favour, the Prime Minister having switched her party’s line.

    The Labour Party had to accept that the government had a mandate to implement Article 50 but once it had seen all its amendments voted down it could not be seen to go into the lobbies with the Tories. The party then failed to convince either Remainers or Leavers, as the byelections since that flip flop have shown.

    But facts please Comrade. Who in the shadow cabinet defied the whip and then stayed on? Surely Corbyn should have sacked them? As the press reported it, he did not have to as they did not exist. So names please.

    Trevor FIsher,

  5. Karl Stewart says:

    What an odd argument the author here is putting forward.

    Of course a serious political party must have a collective, party position on the key issues of the day.

    It’s not effective as a party otherwise is it?

    It’s been good this past week to hear about a range of solid Labour policies being announced, on school meals, on workers’ rights, on public procurement, and on the economy.

    This is the party’s collective position on these vitally important issues and it’s good to have them set out clearly.

    But it was depressing the week before, to hear Labour’s pro-war Blairites cheering Trump’s bombing of Syria, and disappointing that the party leader waited until mid-day to make his view known.

    That was a time when we needed a robust party line and a strong leadership to put it forward.

    1. David Poyser says:

      thanks
      I agree we need a view on things in general – especially in manifestoes; I think we will have one as we are united in our principles. I just think the command and control in the party, even on micro-details on party implementation, got so obsessive that it was counter-productive.

    2. David Poyser says:

      We are now in Election campaign – it goes without saying we need a collective, party position on the key issues of the day. Agree totally Karl
      (I wrote the piece before the election was called about the way a party should behave in Opposition}

  6. C MacMackin says:

    I agree with Karl Stewart, I found this an odd argument. Now, granted, there is a balance to be struck between extreme party discipline (as seen in Canada) and virtually none (as seen in the United States). But, at the end of the day we need to have a party position on key issues. Indeed, the suggestion that party manifestos be legally binding would require this. Furthermore, since most people vote based on party and not based on MP, we need some party discipline to ensure that the party policies the electorate voted for will actually get enacted.

  7. Mr Poyser seems to be addressing the inexorable decline and fall of managerialism, a top-down command and control ideology that dominated political discourse in the 20th century and remains at the core of Labour doctrine. The decline is due to the increasing scale and complexity of the challenges facing governments. The inevitable fall is being precipitated by increasing dominance in advanced economies of intangible commodities, services that have no physical characteristics and can only be evaluated intuitively. This makes planning of any kind by both government and business increasingly difficult (some would say impossible). Perhaps what is required is to focus in what governments can and should do in economies dominated by intangibles, which is to provide free or on a non-profit basis the physical and social infrastructure people need to create value.

  8. Verity says:

    The indiscipline shown by the PLP contrast sharply with the huge numbers of former Tory MPs and non MPs who recognised that a vote has to be an arbiter of division and then obeyed until the world moves on substantially and not just tactically. Dissatisfaction with the quality and standard of the debate is a constant in all elections and cannot be employed to post vote advantage. But it is a behavioural response. Administrative responses to behavioural deteriration just leads to continuing administrative entanglements. Using the law courts is a particularly ill – thought through response. Do we really want to be spending the total of Labour Party resources on court cases allowing judges to determine the meaning of the words we have applied? This is an especially poor judgement. Law cannot adequately address political difference.

    One method of limiting indisciplined behavioural response is for clear commitments to be made clear at the time of selection; the breach for which requires re-selection. I would personally be prepared to open up areas for disagreements but provide parameters where they could occur and where they could not. We could easily be capable of constraining areas and appropriate behaviours for legitimate disagreements. Most of the challenges to the leadership have not really been political but personal, organisational, or irritant frustrations. These could easily be removed by bringing the ‘loud mouths’ back to their selection committees – again and again and again. But then we would be in a better position to demand compliance in public. Of course we can only do this when we have given scope for areas of legitimate difference of view and internal mechanism for a voice.

    It is true though, is to not, that where the political differences of occur, administration would always be limited I would personally be quite comfortable with recognising that the Labour Party is not a Party in a traditional sense but a federation of several ‘Parties’ and that we stand in elections as a federation with an agreed positions for particular specified electoral purposes. In this manner we do not need PR with other fringes, since we would already have formed our coalition prior to the elections. and incorporated our fringes in internal debate.

    For this to work though we would need to have a considerably improved internal democratic debate and decision – making as well as a follow – up in terms of the end to the ‘division period’, and acceptance of the position for the time – being. It could then also require absolute adherence for the agreed period and strict demands for compliance of loose talk like that offered by for example that of Jess Philips which usually contains little of a political nature; or that of Tom Watson which is continuing political connivance – give the man an open voice in the near future and then ask him to be silent or alternatively stand for election.

  9. Karl Stewart says:

    Anyway, we’re now in an election campaign – so let’s fight as hard as we possibly can to try to win, despite the odds being against us.

    Could 2017 be another 1970 (but in reverse this time)?

    Back then, an over-confident PM and a complacent ruling party, a long way ahead in the opinion polls, felt absolutely certain they’d win, everyone was certain they’d win…

    …but they lost.

    Let’s make 2017 our 1970 (but without the World Cup defeat!)

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