Just don't do as we did: Neil Kinnock failed to persuade voters they needed a change. Here, Julie Hall, his press secretary, explains why Labour lost and how the Democrats can win

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The Independent Online
Flying into New York last week, I was surrounded by delegates to the Democratic convention. All appeared confident, upbeat and expectant. They like the Clinton-Gore ticket, and they believe middle-class America will like it, too.

But sitting on my immediate right was Tripp Walmsley, 24, travelling fron Louisiana to a guitar workshop in Connecticut. Tripp skipped the in-flight breakfast and settled back with a dollars 3 beer instead. Noticing the cover of my book, Why Americans Hate Politics, by E J Dionne Jnr, Tripp volunteered: 'I'll tell you why. Cos they're all full of shit.'

Today Americans across the country are just as cynical about their politicians' ability to change anything as people in the UK. And the parallels do not stop there. The issues at the top of the voters' agenda for the recent British general election are the same as US electors' concerns: jobs and the economy, health and education, record crime levels. Opinion polls indicate that Americans are disillusioned and despairing of a tired 12- year Republican administration that is not addressing these issues.

Which is why the Democrat campaign message is 'It's Time for a Change'. Sound familiar?

When Labour went to the British electorate with that slogan a few months ago, the voters rejected it in favour of the devil they knew. So why should the Democrats fare any better?

Well, for a start, they have had the benefit of a kind of dress rehearsal. There has been a lot of transatlantic contact over the past two years between American and British political spin doctors. The American pollsters hung around the Westminster hotels in spring, and this past week in New York has been a bit like a return fixture.

What for Labour in April was 'Britain works best when Britain works together' has become for the Democrats 'When we pull together, America will pull ahead'. Or Neil Kinnock's line 'Together we can transform Britain from the country she has become to the country she can be' has become Bill Clinton's 'Together we can make the country we love the country it was meant to be'.

Then there are the Hugh Hudson-style television broadcasts with swooping helicopter shots cut to the strains of stirring music.

But although the messages are similar, there are several differences of policy and strategy. One of the leading US opinion pollsters I spoke to last week, who had observed the British election at close quarters, felt sure that Labour's problem had been its taxation policies, which left the party on the defensive for much of the campaign. That is a scenario which the Democrats, branded as high taxers and profligate spenders by their opponents, are determined to avoid in the campaign proper. The only people being asked to pay more under the Democrat programme are those earning more than dollars 200,000 (about pounds 100,000), a rather higher top bracket than that proposed by Labour.

The New York strategists like to describe the political campaign battlefield as a football pitch. As the Democrats have learnt - partly by observing Labour's recent fate - the key to political success in a modern, electronic media election campaign is to take the fight to your opponents and keep it there. In the British election the Conservatives ran on to the pitch determined to ensure that play was not centred on its own record and in its own half. Instead, they kicked away at their opponents' perceived weak spots - taxation and spending.

By reacting to Conservative disinformation, Labour failed to define its own message on its own terms. Its strong issues - the loss of manufacturing, markets and growth under the Conservatives - did not win through.

The US Democrat Barbara Jordan last week posed the right question about her party's position: 'Change, yes. But from what to what?' It is a question that voters might well have asked themselves about the Labour Party.

Labour tried to convince people that it had changed - at the time of the crucial changes in defence policy, for example, the press handlers were busy playing up the tormented cries of the hard left to full effect. The party told people what it was no longer - no longer unilateralist and no longer for nationalisation in the old style. But it failed to show what it stood for now.

Labour spent its time trying to placate the C2s and to convince them they would be safe under what was viewed as a questionable taxation programme. There was an attempt to win over what became known as the 'NW3s' - defined by cynics as those living around plush Hampstead - by hinting through the unsubtlest of nods and winks that Labour might embrace electoral reform and proportional representation. The winners, of course, were the Liberals - and ultimately the Conservatives - as health, education and unemployment were wiped from our television screens and newspapers in favour of Paddy Ashdown and speculation about deals in a hung Parliament.

But while there were attempts to formulate policies to appeal to particular target groups, what was lacking was a central focus: a succinct and populist vision stated in clear, concrete terms to create concern about the direction in which Britain was heading and motivate people to vote for change.

Labour failed to secure such a movement, such a national swing. Too often we were talking in vague concepts - equality, opportunity, democracy - which meant something to politicians but didn't travel well with voters worried about their mortgages, jobs and the crime rate in their community. It is this vagueness that the Democrats are seeking to avoid.

'Modernisation, not privatisation' was one Labour attempt at an umbrella concept - hardly the stuff to send Essex Man legging it down to the polling booth.

Setting out the broad vision and the values and policies that underpin it is what the Democrats have been doing during their convention and behind the scenes. James Carville, Clinton's key strategist, has been credited as the brains behind much of the populist repositioning. One of his close associates and admirers summed up his political skills thus: 'He knows what Johnny Six-Pack (the beer-swilling US equivalent of Essex Man) is thinking and what he wants to hear. Carville knows how to win over the suburbs once more.'

With Perot now out of the race, the strategy of fear that the Conservatives used against Labour will be unleashed on the Democrats by their opponents once more. The Democrats are only too aware that they are currently riding high on post-convention 'souffle' polls, which could easily collapse between now and the autumn.

Neil Kinnock famously summed up his own election fate as the triumph of fear over hope. We will see in November whether the candidate from Hope, Arkansas, can reverse that process.

The author is a journalist and broadcaster. She worked as Neil Kinnock's press secretary for three years up to the last election.

(Photographs omitted)