Monday, 18 November 2013

Back to the Future: Does Union Bashing Resonate with the Electorate?

David Cameron has anounced an inquiry into union tactics during industrial disputes and whether Britain needs yet more anti-union legislation. Britain already has a draconian anti-union legislative regime, with the consequential lack of workers' rights.
What are Cameron's motivations? Probably less ideological than Thatcher's, at least in relation to this specific inquiry. This is about little more than electoral advantage. Cameron, and his press adviser Lynton Crosby, think that union stories are bad for Labour's electoral chances. They hope that drip-feeding a hungry Tory press with stories of "Red" Len McCluskey and union "bullies" will resonate with the public and dissuade them from putting a cross next to Labour candidates in May 2015. They think, it would seem, that the British public share their contempt for trade unionism.

But the evidence for this is decidedly unclear. IPSOS-MORI polling shows that, when Thatcher declared war on the unions in 1979 it made electoral sense. 80% of all adults, and nearly 70% of union members thought that the unions had too much power, while two-thirds of adults thought that unions were run by extremists and militants. This marked the success of a media demonization campaign and also shows that the right-wing narrative explaining strikes and industrial conflict in the 1970s was the one that was victorious. This summer, the figures had almost reversed. Only 23% of adults believe unions are led by extremists and militants, and less than a third of adults believe unions hold too much power, in spite of everything that is written about unions and their leadership in the most widely-read newspapers.  The vast majority of British adults (whether union members or not) have in fact always seen unions as essential (both in 1979 and today). 

I do not present these figures to give comfort to those of us who are proud of the Labour Party's links to the trade union movement.  In many ways these figures are symbolic of the powerlessness of unions in post-Thatcherite Britain.  We are no longer perceived as a potent threat to the status quo and as such the public have been fed a far more sparse diet of union bashing and "reds under the bed" misinformation than in the 1970s and 1980s.

But what is interesting in this situation is whether Lynton Crosby has - once again - misjudged the British public and what impacts on their voting behaviour.  I say "once again" because, despite being called "the wizard of Oz", Crosby does not have a good record in British elections.

Crosby ran the Conservative Party's 2005 election campaign, a campaign characterised by nasty, dog-whistle innuendo.  As well as it being a nasty campaign, it was a singularly unsuccessful one.  The Iraq War was at the forefront of most minds; Blair was hugely unpopular and kept off all Labour leaflets.  The Conservative Party was going through an uncharacteristic period of unity, behind leader Michael Howard.  Despite all these advantages, the Conservatives polled poorly and ended up ditching yet another opposition leader.  It was the 2005 election in particular that Theresa May was referring to when she talked about the Conservative's image as "the nasty party".  Crosby has got back to work with the nastiness as before.

In 2009, Crosby ran the campaign for Libertas, a Eurosceptic party who won no seats (in an election that saw UKIP and the BNP having successes). Not only did they not win seats, they got fewer votes than "UK First" and "the Jury team" and less than half those of "No2EU" and the Socialist Labour Party.

Crosby's successes have been with Boris Johnson's campaigns in London in 2008 and 2012.  But the reality is that Boris is an unusual politician.  He won as much because of a failure of traditional campaign management than because of its success.  People do not vote for Boris because of his message or his presentation.

For the 2015 election, Crosby wants to talk about immigration, welfare, the economy, Ed Miliband and the unions.  Increasingly, the sensible Labour response might be: let him. 

What Labour needs to avoid is dancing to Crosby's tune.  Miliband's initial over-reaction to the Falkirk issue is not entirely encouraging in that respect.  Let the Tories rediscover their "nasty party" roots.  Labour should concentrate on its own message and let the Tories hang themselves with permanent austerity, union bashing and "mocking the weak".

No comments:

Post a Comment