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Labour Party woes: only connect

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On Friday the Observer asked me for 100 words on Labour’s problems. They only used the last forty, but this is what I sent:

It’s easy to say what Labour needs to compete in the next election; signs of economic recovery, a compelling policy programme, credible dividing lines with the Conservatives. The political pendulum has swung several times over the last 2 years and the Conservatives still have some frayed edges. From where he is now any improvement could create momentum, but Gordon Brown’s biggest problem as a politician is how hard he finds it to relate to the public at large. Unless he can find a way to connect, it won’t matter what Labour’s message is it simply won’t get through.’

Behind all the talk of conspiracies and betrayal, Labour faces a simple dilemma. Gordon Brown is in some ways a very good leader and in other ways he is not. Arguably his greatest flaw is that the public find it very hard to relate to him; which for a politician is fairly fatal. To say that anyone who expresses this view is obsessed with personalities is a bit like criticising a modelling agency for being obsessed with looks. 

Over ninety percent of human communication is non verbal. If this emotional communication is going wrong it gets in the way of the other 10%; the words themselves. For some reason our Prime Minister finds it very hard to get over this non verbal barrier. A friend once said something like this:

‘When I listen to Gordon Brown it reminds me of watching the weather forecast. It all sounds very clear and I think I am paying attention, but if at the end someone was to ask me if it was going to be sunny tomorrow in North Wales I wouldn’t have a clue.‘

This isn’t just about winning votes. Political leaders need to be able to appeal to our better nature, but to do that they must be able to form an emotional bond. I have argued before that the biggest challenge facing the political class as a whole is to get us, the people, to own the dilemmas facing the country; to stop making impossible demands (‘Swedish welfare on American taxes’ as pollster Ben Page says) and to recognise that we are all responsible for making a better future possible. This is as much an emotional appeal as a rational argument.

The Labour Party faces a very tough choice. In some ways its apparent willingness to stick with Gordon Brown despite his failings is commendable (the Conservatives have traditionally been more ruthless with their leaders) but for MPs and activists to ask for an urgent answer as to how the Prime Minister intends to overcome his demonstrable inability to connect is entirely reasonable.

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