Is the Labour conference over? I must have missed it. Actually I did miss it. Deliberately. Conference is great for diehards to get together but it’s dated, formulaic and dreary for anyone watching from the outside. I had my fill of them over the years and watched as they turned from policy-shaping events into quasi-American rallies. For those who talk about Salmond having acolytes, they should have seen the glow in the eyes of the Tories when Thatcher came on stage. (Not quite the reaction Kinnock and Blair got, nor I suspect Miliband). I also didn’t want to put myself through the Johann Experience. There are people you would leave the bar to hear…Heseltine, Sillars, a young Jim Devine…but I’m developing a cringe about Johann which leaves me somewhere between scorn and pity and it’s unattractive. I look for the strengths in politicians because it allows you to see them as their own side do and opens the door to their message, but what are her strong points? Her image is working class, she’s a woman and a trade unionist, but beyond that, what? Certainly the modern skill of communication would be listed under Work Needed.
So instead of punishing myself by watching her, I read the speech for myself. And, do you know what? It’s pretty good. No, better than that. It’s really good. It is well constructed, it is driven by its own narrative momentum, it has killer lines, it drops in laughs and strikes a tone that Labour people and many outside but still on board will agree with. It excoriates the enemy (that’s the social democratic SNP by the way, not the public service-slashing Tories). It wants to tackle the wealthy and redistribute to the less well-off, questions a cut in business tax and it hints at decentralising to a local level. In Labour terms it’s a winner.
Or, it should be. Yet it was widely criticised and, predictably, ridiculed by nationalists. You don’t have to look far for the reason. First, it was presented by Johann. The principle here is that it doesn’t really matter what the message is if the audience doesn’t relate to the messenger. They don’t have to like or admire her, they just have to respect her enough to acknowledge her right to be up there telling them what’s what. If it’s a message they don’t want to hear, they will still take it from someone they think has earned the respect to a hearing. Equally, an English audience will pack out the hall for Boris Johnson even if he’s talking about a financial consolidation fund. Johann neither projects the patina of power that, say John Smith did when trying to get One Member, One Vote through, or the easy, if gormless, charm of John Prescott backing him. A Sturgeon or, classically, a Winnie Ewing can generate controlled passion. Johann generates anger. She doesn’t, I think, reach out beyond the hall to a wider Scotland, a talent that let Dewar tower above his opponents in the mind of voters across all classes and affiliations. In other words whatever her message, it misses the target because it is delivered by her, a terminal flaw in a politician and one that mirrors the Nixon/Kennedy debates in 1960 where those listening on the radio gave it to Nixon but those who could see him on telly compared to Kennedy, gave it to JFK. (Did I just put Johann in the same sentence as JFK?)
The other reasons the speech doesn’t work outside the hall is the relentless focus on her opponents which is a dead giveaway. It tells them more clearly than if she just announced that she was terrified of them, that they are a genuine and possibly insurmountable obstacle. She can’t beat them in debate so she is left to excoriate among friends when there is no one to challenge. ‘Patronising and cynical, dishonest, deceptive and disgraceful’ don’t chime with a public which was, as she spoke, giving the SNP a clear lead in the polls, an electorate which largely backs them after seven years in power, which puts Salmond and Sturgeon miles ahead in popularity and places her below David Cameron. You have
to have a sense of what you know the public already believe and play with that rather than pretend
to know better than them. Far better to break away altogether from directly attacking the SNP. Just think how that speech would have been reported if she hadn’t mentioned the Nats once? She could have mentioned their policy decisions and their effect and made wry references to an opponent without ever using their name, letting the listener make that connection in their own mind…a much more powerful route to winning them over. How the media would have hailed her positive tone instead of shaking their head at her aggression.
The attempt to portray a left wing agenda based on family and community is exactly right. It’s just too late and too contradictory. Where has this been while Johann set up the Cuts Commission, gave us Something for Nothing and failed to nail Trident? It is simply unbelievable that Labour can claim ownership of an agenda they have mislaid for a decade, when they have resisted SNP initiatives including free school meals and alcohol pricing and moaned about a council tax freeze while the London leadership promises to continue the Tory spending budget, refuses to restore cuts, abstains over civil rights when job hunters are made to work for nothing and agrees to spend billions on new nuclear weapons. And if this is her agenda, why not wrap it all up in a devolution max envelope and put it to the people in the referendum? Cynical doesn’t quite cover it. (Did she consult on land reform with Donald Houston, who owns a chunk of Ardnamurchan and donates to BetterTogether?)
This is the speech she should have made on getting the leadership. She should have devised her own devo package and insisted it be put to the people. Instead its another pretendy reform which will never get a mandate just like Calman. Is it a manifesto or is it a wish-list? The trouble now of course is that every setback in the polls can be viewed as partly a judgement on her botched devolution plan, her speech and the “Red Thingy” so that when the Euro polls produce a lowered Labour vote, it will be evidence that her initiative is failing, just as a rising Yes vote says, in part, the same thing. The net effect is to create the impression of a leader who is a loser while the opposite effect boosts Salmond and one of the major advantages for Yes is the optimism that comes from momentum. As the vote rises and people see independence become more of a reality while watching Labour flounder with confused policies and an unconvincing leader, they feel the pull of success moving them to back a winner.
So, good speech, Johann, wrong speaker. Good content, wrong emphasis. Good intent, wrong time.
AND just to finish with the Brian Wilson “Bateman is a cybernat not a nice unionist” affair…I got a note from Twitter covering my last week of tweeting which showed I had 94.2K total views, 1254 retweets and 959 link visits. And guess what my most popular tweet was? The very one Brian complained about. ‘Marr is Naughtie lite. Expat denigrators who owe allegiance to the British state that promoted them. A self selecting elite on auto sneer’ with 14.3K views, 66 favorites, 21 replies and 135 retweets. If it offends Brian, it seems to be very popular out their in real Scotland. We shouldn’t be afraid of speaking the people’s language. This is social media not Brian’s corporate-controlled mainstream media.by