A Crisis of Trust
Anyone who lives in Britain - including and especially those who don't really follow politics - know what Labour is widely perceived to be bad at. Those things are: leadership, spending too much, and being soft on immigration. As today's YouGov polling shows, that hasn't changed.
It's also true that Labour has been misrepresented. Public spending as a proportion of GDP fell in the Blair/Brown years and the Party was by no means lenient on welfare during the boom. The party broadly continued Thatcherite policy on spending and leadership style. Blair in particular was neurotically controlling, even autocratic. Though Blair was particularly keen on immigration from Eastern Europe after those countries' support for the invasion of Iraq, the party consistently talked tough. Blair trumpeted "tough immigration laws that work" in 2005. Brown promised "British jobs for British workers" in 2009. Even the supposedly left-wing Ed Milliband had his famous immigration mugs.
So why don't people buy the idea that Labour is a tough, no-nonsense party that favours strong central leadership, fiscal rectitude, and a firm hand toward foreigners? Maybe it's just the media. Or maybe it's because, in practical terms, Labour is less good at presenting itself as those things than the Tories are. The Tories may not be very effective in reality. They've doubled the public debt, failed on their own deficit target, increased immigration and bowed out at the first sign of trouble over Brexit. Their central pledge to the electorate was that they would eliminate the deficit by 2015. It stands today at £70 billion and they've ditched any serious commitment to eliminating it. The Tories promised to cut immigration and they increased it to a record high. Growth has stagnated, investment is in decline, there's is no real productivity in the economy. The Tories are worse than incompetent - they haven't got a fucking clue. But they are better at looking like they can control immigration and clamp down on the public finances.
There are many reasons for this and "the media" is one. Another is deep public perception, based on historically informed, socially constructed expectations. Another still is the easy intellectual detente between the Tories' top strategy advisors and those who shape media narratives proper. The whole apparatus of the Tory Party - part state-hugging machinery, part intellectual network enveloping the top universities and the press - is geared toward shaping and in turn performing for public perceptions.
True, this is all massively unfair. Some Labour people are good at what the Tories do - or try to be. Largely, because they are expensively educated and very wealthy, they resemble the Tories. Unsurprisingly they advocate a strategy and a path to power that mirrors the Tories. In some cases they also advocate similar policies. But that's not really the point. The point is they keep losing.
YouGov polling data confirms what they've all been saying: the public doesn't trust Labour on leadership, public finances or immigration. The current leadership is hardly going to change that. So the logical conclusion is to "meet the public where they are, not as they should be." It's true that Jeremy Corbyn can't get the country to agree with him.
So let's assume three things. Labour gets a tough-looking leadership. Maybe it's Dan Jarvis. Maybe Labour gets a poll boost among older voters. That would be fantastic. Now, suppose Labour outlflanks the Tories on immigration. Let's say they promise to cut immigration not just to the tens of thousands but to the mere thousands. And they promise not only to cut public spending but to halve the public debt. The problem isn't that these things wouldn't be popular, it is that no one would believe a word of it.
And why not? The Tories themselves promised to cut net migration to the the tens of thousands - and it rose. The Tories also promised to eliminate the public deficit by 2015 and reduce the public debt - they have abandoned the former and doubled the latter. It's not fair that they get away with this, but they do. And Labour won't get away with it. The Tories will be trusted on fiscal credibility and immigration even if they systematically fail on their own terms. Labour, on the other hand, won't be believed no matter what they promise.
The Labour Party can do two things to respond to this: they can collectively point out the failure of the Tories and they can campaign for a convincing alternative. That is all. There's no cheeky triangulation that will pull this off. There's no spin that can cut those corners. It is hard work. It's probably boring for people to listen to. But it's the truth.
Take immigration. After years of talking tough and being perceived as soft on immigration, many senior Labour figures are now leaning toward talking tougher on immigration. Invariably these are pro-EU, pro-single market people who see being anti-immigration as a tactical and rhetorical device to win over racist little Englanders. In their world, consistency can be sacrificed for the sake of appearance. They forget that even in a postmodern world people still want convincing, persuasive stories about the world that make sense. Simply declaring yourself anti-immigration, whilst at the same time being pro-EU, won't persuade anyone. People aren't stupid and they'll just think you're duplicitous. Which is basically what everyone thinks anyway.
People have consistently been lied to about immigration. It's happened in unprecedented numbers, then they've been told it's a bad thing. Whilst they've been told that it's a bad thing and that it should be cut, it's continued to rise. As many have told them it's got out of control, some have suggested it can only fall if we leave the EU. Now that we are leaving the EU, it's becoming clear that it may still not fall.
How can anyone in the Labour Party - a party marked by lies and treachery and famed for being pro-immigration - believe that by talking tough on immigration they can win people over? The problem with rational actor theory is that it forgets people can detect bullshit. And people's bullshit antennae are off the scale when they hear Labour say "we want to cut immigration." No one believes it and they never will. Because it is bullshit.
What's the best thing Labour could possibly say on the proverbial doorstep? Here's an idea: "Fine, cut immigration. Kick every single foreigner out if you want. It might even make you feel good for a week or two. But do you really believe for one moment that this would help you get a good job? Or a decent house? Or a good school place for your kid? Or a decent health service?" And even if those questions are left unanswered, the silence they provoke will be a kind of progress.
The Labour leadership alone can't do this. Resentful backbenchers with their embarrassing subservience to the right wing press certainly can't do this. But a million fired up Labour members in every community across the country can. Nobody said transforming and rebuilding the country would be easy. But it will be easier to persuade enough people that immigration and public spending are good than it will to persuade them that Labour really intends to cut either.