Agincourt, Ronnie Rosenthal and Labour 2019: Losing when winning was the easier option.
Anyone can lose, but it takes something special to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The French had the odds and the soldiers stacked in their favour at Agincourt, Ronnie Rosenthal could not miss that open goal again if he tried a hundred times and Labour should have won the 2019 general election.
On 12 December 2019 many people and much of the country were still damaged by a decade of austerity, Brexit was rumbling on like an annoying cold in December and Boris Johnson was widely seen as a liar who blurted out his thoughts like the first born love child of Father Jack and the Duke of Edinburgh. Although not to Andrew Neil or Piers Morgan. Yet we lost. We missed an open goal from 8 yards. And we didn’t just hit the crossbar, we hit the corner flag. How did we manage that?
Clearly there isn’t a smoking gun and a genuine review should consider lots of ideas from lots of different perspectives. This is mine. Real Clear has worked with 50+ Labour MPs, MEPs and their teams. We coach and train people in schools, public services, charities and Trade Unions all over the UK. Our goal is to work hard to help socially minded organisations work smarter, to achieve more, to make the world a better place. The suggestions below are made with that goal in mind: to help my party to work smarter.
1. We need to cheer up.
How optimistic we are correlates with our health wealth and happiness but the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman found that the optimism of candidates can predict how people vote. In his research into the US presidential elections between 1900 and 1984 he found that in 18 out of 22 elections the more optimistic sounding candidate won. Optimism matters in politics and in terms of this general election I think it worked against us. I think that the distilled messages were:
Tories: Britain is great, let’s get Brexit done and make it greater.
Labour: Britain isn’t great, we need to spend billions to save it.
The Tories glass was half full, Labour’s half empty.
That may be a little harsh, but I don’t think that we can deny that our refrain too often was how awful Britain is, how poor and unhappy. Jeremy Corbyn began one of the final debates with “the problem with this country is…”. In many areas there are many problems, but we must avoid sounding like we view the world as a dystopian post-apocalyptic place of greyness because when we do the grey sticks to us. Optimism and hope wins votes. Grey doesn’t. Ask John Major.
2. We must learn to step into other people’s shoes, even if they really pinch.
Emotional Intelligence; our ability to understand ourselves and others, to manage our behaviour and create effective relationships is everything in politics. There is a large body of research demonstrating the importance of EI across our lives. In politics and Trade Unions everything we do involves EI; we motivate people to join us, campaign with us and, crucially, vote for us.
A key component of EI is empathy; the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. Not sympathy, but genuine empathy; the ability to understand what someone is feeling and why they feel it. On the left we think that our desire to support the homeless, to end the pain caused by universal credit, shows our empathy for others. It doesn’t. That shows our sympathy for homeless people and people struggling. We do well on sympathy. We don’t do well on empathy, I’d go further, we are rubbish at empathy, I think that it is our achilles heel. We find it really difficult to see the world through the eyes of people who disagree with us; people who worry that Jeremy Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser, or who voted for Brexit, or are worried about immigration, or who vote Tory.
Too often we do the opposite of empathising; we condemn. My facebook feed is littered with the view that working class Tory voters must be “conned” or “stupid”, that “they deserve what they get” and are “contemptible servile wretches”. Since the election some people with influence have even said that the vote was the result of “white supremacy”. You don’t need a psychology degree to know that being nasty about people, calling them stupid, won’t make them vote for you.
Like it or not Boris Johnson portraying Labour voters with their hands quivering over the Tory on the ballot paper and understanding that they might not do it again is empathy. We need to match and surpass that in the coming years if we are going to win them back. Your confirmation bias may go into overdrive on reading that and you may say that he is making it up, but it’s not you we need to win over, it’s the people who voted for him. No empathy will result in no election victory.
3. We must Let Bartlet be Bartlet.
Our lack of empathy also plays a role in our continued misunderstanding about why the Trumps, Farages and Johnsons of the political world keep getting elected: genuineness. People value authenticity. People can pick up on politicians who are not themselves, who say things that are patently not what they really think or believe. They prefer authentic people who are being themselves.
That might sound obvious but whoever advised Gordon Brown to do that smile (instead of saying: he saved the world economy, let him just be smart) clearly handed the baton of pretence to Jeremy who's emotional range at times just went from quiet and slow to loud and quick. It didn't work.
Day after day in this election, before it and since, we have watched as people espouse a line that they blatantly don’t really believe. That has to change, for all parties of course, but first and foremost for us, because we lost.
I am going to trigger some confirmation biases again here but to many people Johnson comes across as genuine; as clumsy, thoughtless, and fallible. He is seen as human. Whoever we choose to replace Jeremy Corbyn needs to have the confidence to be themselves, to make mistakes, to say sorry and mean it and to be able to laugh at themselves. They are 21st century leadership skills and are crucial to winning votes in this changed world.
Friday the 13th Part 2? Part 3?
Friday 13 December 2019 was a painful day for us on the left but we mustn’t forget that the first seeds of future defeats and victories are already being sown. I think that optimism, empathy and genuineness will be important factors if we are to have future victories. I don’t think that they are the only ones: concerns about competency, affordability, trust and many other concerns may have played a role. But the beauty of living in a democracy is that you don’t have to take my word for it; you can find out for yourself.
All of us can speak to people who voted Tory and we can listen. We can find out what they think we did wrong and need to do now. That’s emotional intelligence, that’s 21st century leadership and that is an important step on the road to recovery. This is the biggest Tory majority since 1987. It’s up to us if, in 5 years, we also want to repeat 1992.
Andy Belfield, Co-Founder, Real Clear.