How Labour might win big in 2023

Julian Saunders thinks Kier Starmer should learn from the Chinese, when it comes to revolutionary words and use of language

Twelve years of Tory failure
Twelve years of Tory failure
Twelve years of Tory failure
Twelve years of Tory failure
Twelve years of Tory failure

Bored yet?

Strong and Stable
Strong and Stable
Strong and Stable

Enough already. That’s the problem with “message discipline” (as they call it in political circles) – it often confuses being consistent with being repetitive. Quite soon you can become an object of derision like poor Theresa May.

Which brings me, naturally, to Lord Cummings of Barnard Castle, a master of message discipline. He was not a popular chap (Dominic Cummings) when he was in government, but he was a hot communications strategist. Consider his greatest hit, ‘Take back control’. Remember that? Probably, which is no mean feat. Why so? It had a number of qualities that look easy after the event but require insight into both human needs and the mood of the times:

  • It was about what people might want rather than what members of the political class want to say about themselves or each other
  • It was rooted in a basic human desire — for control and the fear that the pace of change means loss of control
  • It was a baggy idea into which others could pour meaning — anti immigrationists like Farage, free traders like Sunak and opportunists like Johnstone
  • It promised a better future. Taking back control would free Britain for a better, more dynamic future

Put aside whether this promise was nonsense or not the point is that, at some level, campaigns have to be optimistic. The grimmer the times the more optimism is needed. Like ‘New Labour New Britain’ (Tony Blair), ‘New Britain being forged in the white heat of technology’ (Harold Wilson), ‘The China Dream’ (Xi), or ‘Make America Great Again’ (Donald Trump). Sir Keir’s comms strategy is a turgid 2 out of 10. He could work it up to a mediocre 6 out of 10 by simply employing some historians. After all, MAGA is just a reworking Ronald Reagan’s ‘It’s morning again in America’ (which has more warmth and charm).

But where should he look for a 9 out of 10? Whose political slogans are for all the ages?

The Chinese. Consider Mao on feminism: ‘Women hold up half the sky’. Or Deng on how to make progress — ‘Cross the river by feeling for stones’. And on allowing more private enterprise: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”. These are all examples of imagist language, the skill of poets down the generations by using words to spark pictures in our minds. The Chinese have a cultural advantage because mandarin is pictographic — its characters contain visual ideas, so the epigrams of Chinese leaders tend to the concrete and visual.

Now I can’t imagine any of this kind of thing coming out of Sir Keir’s mouth. But he needs to find his own poetry, to make his own white heat of technology speech.

Where should he look for material?

Gordon Brown, god bless him, has come up with radical proposals for a better Britain, which are grounds for that vital ingredient: optimism. But Gordon being Gordon, it’s earnest stuff. No one on the streets knows what it’s about apart from abolishing the Lords, which sounds a bit like ‘smashing things up’ — this is great coming from a revolutionary but not so good coming from a centrist politician.

Here then is my modest proposal: Sir Kier should hand over Gordon’s thinking to a team of poets with a one-word brief — ‘optimism’. He might just get a gem of a line, which an infinite number of SPADS (special advisors) are not going to produce.

That line might be the difference between a hung parliament and a healthy majority… because words, as the Chinese have always known, can be revolutionary.

Featured image: Josh Barwick / Unsplash

Julian Saunders

After university, Julian worked for a time for the Labour Party before leaving politics for advertising. He was a Planning Director at Ogilvy, Head of Strategy at McCann-Erickson and CEO of Red Cell, WPP’s challenger brand agency. He has worked for the Government and for Google in recent years and is the author of ‘The Communication Challenge’, a guide to the impact of the digital revolution on advertising.

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