The Labour Party has many problems. It has a problem which reflects its many other problems, its slogan is too vague.
To quibble about the semantics of ‘For the many, not the few’ may seem strange, particularly when Labour has much larger issues. However, review the slogan considering those issues and the problem becomes clear. Put simply, who are the many and who are the few? To a Labour supporter the answer seems obvious: the wealthy are the few, everyone else the many. But what if you are a member of a minority community, one that numbers, say, 284,000 (or 0.5% of the population), with a history of being oppressed by majorities and a justified suspicion of Labour’s leader?
That is not to say that anti-Semitism in the party is caused by a slogan. The issue is much deeper and much, much uglier than semantics. But the semantics matter because they reinforce an image. In this case, they represent the feeling in the Jewish community that their views do not matter to Labour, since they are not a sizeable ‘many’.
The slogan’s ambiguity means that during any debate with or within the party, one side becomes the excluded ‘few’ while the other is the greater ‘many’. Perhaps the few are those pesky Labour parliamentarians, while the many are the membership. Or are the few the business owners, all of whom are, of course, entirely oppressive, while the many are their numerous workers and consumers. Maybe the few are the working families reliant on the tax credits and benefits, which Labour is content to cut like the Conservatives, while the many are the middle class students, whose fees Labour will happily pay, despite two-thirds of students never having to pay a penny.
Slogans matter. They summarise what a party believes and what it will do. They are continuously repeated by the party’s politicians and they are the first impression voters get during elections. Labour’s is divisive. It splits society but leaves the definitions to interpretation, allowing fanatics and anti-Semites to pervert it and purvey it as their own.
Of course, politics is divisive. It is primarily about seizing enough votes for a parliamentary majority, believing that the opposition’s voters will, in the words of the fictional White House staffer Toby Ziegler, “like us when we win”. Yet the greatest art in politics is to unite voters around a vision that conveys a direction, which opponents can, at least, accept. Labour has failed to do this. It addresses the current state of society, splits that society and picks a side. It conveys a jealous stasis.
But Labour can do better. Why? Because Labour has done better before. In 1945, Labour’s slogan was ‘Let Us Face the Future’. It summarised a forward-looking vision. Yes, its policies involved heavier taxation of the wealthy, and vast nationalisations. But the vision invited the few to sacrifice for the greater good, which Labour’s vision aptly put as a ‘New Jerusalem’. Sacrifices would be made but that was to achieve a society deserving of those who would return from the war, and worthy of those who would not.
In the 1960s, Labour’s most successful electioneer (by number of elections won), Harold Wilson, ensnared the nation with his ‘white heat’. A vision of a new society unbound by antique, restrictive practices and forged in the white heat of scientific advancement. A fitting narrative in the time of spaceships, Isaac Asimov and moon landings. In 1997, Labour promised a ‘New Britain’. A break from the stagnant managerialism of John Major’s Conservatives, to a modern, open version of Britain. Labour succeeds when it looks to the future and returns to clearly state the promise it has seen. Conservative principles allow for stasis, social democracy does not.
Labour has the imagination to repeat its past successes. It certainly has the intellectual heft. Look at McDonnell’s economic advisors. Mariana Mazzucato’s book alone provides a blueprint for what a forward-looking Labour vision could entail. The title itself, ‘The Entrepreneurial State’, may be a good starting point for a slogan. Imagine if Labour’s vision weaved together its radical initiatives, instead of displaying a divisive status quo. A slogan that encapsulated its National Education Service, emphasised its innovation boosting industrial strategy and reflected its plans to cut the costs of housing.
Perhaps it is time to revive the vision behind the white heat? A bolder Britain this time forged in the white heat of an entrepreneurial state. Evidently any slogan would be shortened, focus grouped and reviewed. But, to start, why not something like ‘Bold Britain: embracing new frontiers with the entrepreneurial state’? Something that invites us to step forward together and summarises a narrative of how to achieve it. Importantly, it is splice-able. ‘On this issue, we should be bold’, you can imagine interviews starting. ‘It is a new frontier, but with an entrepreneurial state we can be bold and embrace it’, comes a later riposte. The left will love the statist tone. Business will be intrigued by the talk of entrepreneurship. The right will appreciate the patriotic ring of ‘Bold Britain’. And the young will be engaged by the new frontiers. If Labour can find such a narrative and a fitting slogan to summarise it, it will be on a path to victory.
Changing the slogan will not solve Labour’s other issues. But it will stop emphasising them. Labour first needs a clear-out, to rid itself of the fanatics and anti-Semites. Once that is done, it needs a new vision and a new slogan to summarise its new self.