Is Labour's Election Problem Not The Sales Pitch, But The Salesman?

With even trade union members not yet ready to vote Labour, can they be turned in ten days?

Sign up now to get The Waugh Zone, our weekday evening politics briefing, by email.

Retail therapy

When Ed Miliband lost the 2015 election, many on the Left of the party thought the real problem had been his reliance on ‘retail politics’, and a lack of a radical critique of the way Britain was run.

Yes, Miliband had some eye-catching ideas, like his famous ‘freeze’ on energy bills a couple of years earlier (call me a saddo, I’ve still got the plastic ‘ice’ cube containing a mini bill that we hacks were handed). But over time, the Tories ended up stealing his best policies, while raising the spectre of a coalition of chaos with the SNP.

In this election with Christmas shopping descending upon us all, Jeremy Corbyn has come up with many more retail policies than Miliband could have dreamed of. We’ve already had free broadband, free NHS prescriptions and free dental checks. Today, he offered to slash 33% from all rail fares, which alongside his rail nationalisation promises cheaper and better travel for commuters across the country.

Of course, if you’re a South West Trains commuter facing a month of strikes that will leave you stranded on a freezing platform, the offer of cut-price fares may be balanced against the fact that Labour is also supporting the industrial action.

It’s a mark of how much Labour has changed since those Miliband days (let alone Blair and Brown) that many activists clearly think strikes are a vote-winner, not a vote-loser. Momentum has a new ‘Strike to Win’ campaign that tells Labour members in marginal seats which picket lines to appear on to support university and college lecturers in their own dispute.

It remains to be seen if the train strike damages Labour’s hopes of winning back seats like Wimbledon and Putney and holding onto Battersea. But it could add an extra test of just whether the voters have changed as much as the party has changed.

As for those other retail policies, there was another one to add to Corbyn’s pre-Christmas offers today. A new IFS report suggested that council taxes are more likely to go up under the Tories than Labour. Given the party is getting hammered over removing married tax allowance and pension changes, that’s a reminder that the Conservatives’ own cuts spell tax hikes down the line.

In fact, Labour’s social media team had a canny way to sell their manifesto too. They tweeted that for someone earning £82,000 a year, their tax under Labour would go up by £8.33 a month, which was less than Spotify or Netflix but would instead deliver more for the NHS, lift kids out of poverty and tackle the climate crisis.

Corbyn supporters believe that their plans work because they are part of a wider alternative that Miliband never offered: radically changing the balance of power and ownership in the UK. It’s not just about retail, it’s the wholesale price being changed for good, they say. The downside, however, is that so many goodies are being proposed that - as one of our HuffPost UK/Edelman focus groups put it - Corbyn seems like ‘Santa Claus’, and not in a good way.

And one problem that Corbyn shares with Miliband is not the sale, but the salesman. His personal ratings are so painfully low that it seems the last two years have not borne out the theory that the more the public see of him the more they’ll like him. Questions of competence and credibility continue.

This isn’t an abstract concept. When I was in Derby last week to interview Len McCluskey, I sat in a meeting beforehand where he met Unite union officials from across the east midlands. These were shop stewards from Toyota, Rolls Royce, Bombardier factories, the epitome of the skilled working class traditionally tied to Labour.

And while many were clearly fans of Corbyn’s agenda, what was striking was how many of them reported that Corbyn himself was a problem in their communities. “Toxic” said one, “divisive” said another. One shop steward even asked why his union was still supporting a leader who couldn’t sort out anti-Semitism.

McCluskey, who admitted Leave-voting seats were Labour’s ‘Achilles heel’, said that the party had to sell its policies while tackling “the very real issues we’ve got over Brexit and with Jeremy in some places”. But he told me that Unite’s mega-poll of its own members showed that a big number of them were still undecided about who they would vote for.

McCluskey was confident that the ‘don’t knows’ would ‘come home to Labour’ and took heart from the fact that they could swing this entire contest if they do so. Yet if even members of the country’s largest and most pro-Corbyn trade union are undecided, the danger is they remain ‘don’t knows’ on polling day and stay at home. In tight marginals, when you add in the pro-Leave Labour frustration that Brexit is still not done, that could prove very difficult indeed.

Many around Corbyn are just hoping the polls continue to narrow and that Labour support ticks up. ICM put the party on 35% today, up another point. If they get to 36% or 37%, it really could be hung parliament territory again. The Brexit party’s support has all but evaporated, and can’t go any lower. But the Lib Dems could yet be squeezed further.

How ironic it would be in this most negative of general elections, if Jo Swinson’s plummeting personal ratings turn out to be Corbyn’s most useful retail offer of all.

Quote Of The Day

“You may well like Boris, you may well find Boris highly entertaining, you may well be related to one of his many children.”

Nigel Farage jokes about the PM’s extended family.

Monday’s Election Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson tried to deny he was exploiting the London Bridge terror attack for political gain. But Dave Merritt, whose son Jack was murdered in the violent frenzy on Friday, wrote a powerful piece for the Guardian on why the public should focus on Tory cuts not Tory threats to “toughen” the system. His son would be “seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate”, he said.

Speaking of which, former Tory chair Baroness Warsi lashed out at her party for a new advert which portrayed Johson as ‘tough on terrorists’ and Jeremy Corbyn as ‘soft on terrorists’. “With families still coming to terms with the shock and grief of losing loved ones, this is insensitive campaigning,” she tweeted. “We are the United Kingdom not Trump’s America.”

Donald Trump lands in Blighty tonight for the three-day Nato summit. Jeremy Corbyn will attend an event at Buckingham Palace tomorrow alongside the US president and other Nato leaders (and Westminster party leaders), at the invitation of the Queen.

Trump himself is en route but wary of interfering further in the UK election, it seems. One senior official on the White House trip team told the Telegraph “he is absolutely cognisant of not, again, wading into other country’s elections”.

What didn’t get enough attention here was that the global climate change summit started in Madrid. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres declared “the point of no return is no longer over the horizon”. Greta Thunberg is due to arrive by boat tomorrow.‌

Ken Livingstone held up one of the many Tube trains he used to be responsible for, sticking his foot in the door to the clear irritation of an Underground worker and others.

What I’m Reading

Got A Tip?

Send tips, stories, quotes, pics, plugs or gossip to

Subscribe To Commons People

Each week, the HuffPost UK Politics team unpack the biggest stories from Westminster and beyond. Search for Commons People wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe.


What's Hot