On Labour, leadership, and the Labour leadership (part I): Storytelling is only half the story

Craig Berry

Since the start of the Labour leadership contest, Keir Starmer has led some polls of Labour members, and Rebecca Long-Bailey others. Lisa Nandy has not topped any poll, and, with a reputation largely built – so far – on her abilities as a pitchside pundit, it would be unwise to assert without caveat that she is best placed to lead the Labour Party at the present moment. However, all of the potential leadership candidates have flaws as well strengths. I will argue here that, whoever claims the top job, Labour cannot be led without Nandy, and the qualities she provides.

To attempt to do so would be to marginalise the most compelling account of Labour’s 2019 defeat – and a set of intellectual resources through which it might be reversed. To understand why this is true, we need to examine how political preferences, narratives and tribes interact. In this opening post, I will argue that Labour needs to focus on constructing a governing project: crucially, this is the prism through which the candidates’ merits should be assessed.

Voters (also known as ‘human beings’) do not think in simple, logical terms about politics, because politics is not simple or logical. Most people spend an incredibly small amount of time thinking about politics, even during election campaigns. But when they do think about it, or more importantly when they form subconscious impressions about it, their political reasoning – just like those of us who do think a lot about politics a lot – is multi-dimensional.

From the inside, politics does not feel like the real world. But voters judge politics in accordance with the only world they know; that is, the real one. Every workplace, for instance, has someone who brings in cake more often than everybody else does. Do we like that person? Do we appreciate the generosity? Would we rather they just sent that file we’ve been asking for rather than hunting for napkins? On the one hand, there is cake. On the other hand, it makes the rest of us people who (a) do not bring cake, (b) have yet another thing to fret about, and, either way, (c) eat too much cake. We can think of political capital being won and lost like this, multiplied by infinity.

Many a career in political science has been made by describing in esoteric terms whatever unexpected trend has become evident in the latest opinion surveys. But predicting the next shift is elusive even for the most enterprising academic, because it is almost impossible to say how the evolving matrix of parties, policies and personalities will ‘land’ when confronted with lived experience. This is an uncertainty that political parties usually price in, on the back of formal testing of their policy ideas, and/or ongoing, informal dialogue with their target voters.

Labour lost sight of this basic reality in December. The party focused on developing popular manifesto pledges, but failed to appreciate the possibility that a seemingly popular policy could actually cost votes, if by offering it the party reinforced some negative impression elsewhere in voters’ political calculus. I have no idea how extensive the party’s research into target voter preferences (and mechanisms of preference-shaping) was; in fairness, the election came about relatively suddenly. We can probably point also to the malfunction of the normal feedback loop involving voters, members, elected representatives and the party leadership, perhaps resulting from demographic shifts within the party membership, but also the a lack of trust across the front and back benches of the PLP.

The sympathetic critique of Labour’s failure – articulated by both supporters and critics of Corbyn – has centred on the notion that, while the manifesto’s parts were popular, the sum of these parts did not tell a story. Sure: if political reasoning is multi-dimensional, then the ability to mould fragments of thought into a unifying, positive narrative is, essentially, what politicians are for. This is not a new notion. But the proponents of this view of political leaders as storytellers often advance it as if crafting a narrative is an easy thing to do. How many great storytellers can you think of? How many of them are currently employed by the Labour Party? It is not like you can just take a bunch of words and straightforwardly decide whether to assemble them as a to-do list or an Oscar-winning screenplay. The world is full of crap stories. Corbyn had a story, centred on his own, personal virtues as a critic of the British establishment, and promising above all to use industrial policy to create millions of better-paid jobs in growth industries, for ordinary folk too often overlooked by the political elite. Fairly well-crafted, and very poorly received.

To say that political reasoning is multi-dimensional is not to deny that politics is also quintessentially tribal. In part, tribes are the stories we tell ourselves to bring order to endless political complexity. Political tribes, however, are themselves inherently complex: a mixture of class, identity, geography, ideology, etc. Tribes are externally overlapping and internally contradictory. Individuals project tribal affinity onto others who may or may not share the sentiment. Tribes are not mobs. Insofar as they have materiality, they have a capacity to evolve, as well as rules and traditions.

Tribal leadership matters; as Johnson’s success testifies, it need not be provided by a ‘native’. This is both a bad thing and a good thing. Tribes can be misled, effectively by reimagining the purpose and boundaries of membership. However, this is another way of saying that new tribal identities can be forged, and old tribal identities rekindled.

Johnson has done a bit of both. ‘Get Brexit done’ is that rare thing: a simple, unifying narrative with deceptively dense layers of meaning. There is the patriotic appeal, bleeding into populism and racism. There is the idea of a better future – just around the corner – whether it be the sunlit uplands of Global Britain, or just some much-needed respite. There is the servile promise that a demand currently being denied will be delivered (that is, a claim to administrative competence, as well as a neat bit of demagoguery). The North is told: “I’m doing this for you”; the South hears: “I’ve tamed the North”.

Yet the pitch is as fragile as it is brilliant. Its layers cannot possibly withstand the weather ahead. The Conservative parliamentary party is fundamentally divided on the UK’s trade relations with the EU and the rest of the world, not to mention key aspects of domestic policy. The new, Northern Tory MPs will not resolve these tensions. The future of the union can only be fudged for a while. Nobody seriously expects to see an improvement in the standard and availability of public services. We are not going to be creating millions of better-paid and more fulfilling jobs any time soon, and the sheer improbability that leaving the EU will help in this situation will eventually ‘cut through’. Johnson has inherited a mountain of policy problems he has no idea how to scale, and there are hardly any grown-ups left to guide him.

The impending conclusion of Boris Johnson’s honeymoon period is no reason for complacency, however. Even if Johnson himself is eventually charged with not getting Brexit done, or with getting Brexit wrong, the resulting vacuum is as likely to be claimed by the right as the left.

If Labour wants to write a better story, it needs to start by thinking about who its story is for. This does not mean surrendering to Labour’s critics, because storytelling is not transactional. Stories create audiences by helping us understand who we are, and who we want to become. For this reason, the storyteller matters as much as the story. Behaviouralists tells us there is a science to the cognitive processes which lead to some messengers being trusted more than others. Perhaps they are right, but that does not mean we can reverse engineer the winning formula (unless I missed the lecture on the ‘Boris’ model). When it comes to political leadership, we usually only know it when we see it.

Moreover, what works for one group of voters, at one time, almost certainly will not work for all groups, at all times (or for enough voters, for long enough to win). What Labour needs to construct now is a governing project. A governing project is a lot of different things. An alliance of electoral segments. A network of leaders with a specific appeal to, or the loyalty of, these various groups. An effective activist base to facilitate dialogue. The project has to be founded on a broad approach to policy through which supporters can see what they get for what they give (this is not to say that preferences are purely instrumental). It builds upon existing economic practices, providing an account of how particular livelihoods will be defended or enhanced. The institutional foundations of the project must be robust to withstand the ebbs and flows of day-to-day politics, and to embody the link between how a party conducts itself in opposition and what could plausibly change if it gains power.

The essence of governing projects is unquantifiable, and therefore their significance tends to be unseen by political science. With many honourable exceptions, the discipline as a whole has become increasingly positivist in orientation, focusing on tracking the component parts of electability – issue salience, voters’ view on particular policies or individual leaders, campaign effectiveness, and the fit between party strategies, electoral systems and voter spread, and so on – in isolation. Political economists and political sociologists tend to do a better job of demonstrating the complex relationships between a political strategy and wider socio-economic conditions, which essentially govern the scope of realisable governance projects – which is not to say that foreseeing which strategy will work is a common occurrence.

Clearly, no single leader can alone articulate and steer a governing project, and its multi-tribal identities. Their job is to embody the shared values and defend the material compromises that hold the project together. If you are performing this role reluctantly – as Corbyn was, and as Theresa May was for the Conservatives – it will show. The story will require too much exposition, and it will bore accordingly. The notion that Labour can regroup by simply telling a better story about its existing agenda, or trying harder to get the message out to target seats, is, at best, wishful thinking about what it takes to form enduring and meaningful relationships with voters – whoever leads the party. Part two of this essay will focus on identifying the building blocks of Labour’s next governing project.

Part 2 is here.

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