Reaching out to the public from the left

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
30 June 2010

I want to respond to Carmen D'Cruz's post on Liberal Conspiracy on why the left doesn't "reach out to more people". I think it is unfair in two ways but more important she is onto something. She was disappointed by the bloggers summit (I posted on it here) because it didn't seem to want to engage with the public. This is unfairness No 1. It wasn't about that. It was a stock-taking of left-wing bloggers mostly in shock, either because they were Labour and had lost, or were social Lib Dems and were in government with Cameron and Osborne or were Greens like Rupert Read wondering what to do next.

Unfairness No 2 builds on her complaint about the failure of those on the left to engage with the public. Carmen adds, "not many people on the left have been calling for Labour to take stock of its mistakes and failings over the last 13 years in order to repair the relationship they have with voters". This may indeed be a failing of much of the Labour left. But not everyone and not in general.

Sunny and his site have consistently asked about where the public is at and what the left has done wrong. Here I want to blow our own trumpet and leave it to others to toot their's. OurKingdom, which began with an engagement with the new Brown government over its promise of constitutional and democratic renewal, has provided consistent analysis of what Labour has got wrong in power over the democratic area especially and has directly reached out with the Convention on Modern Liberty to engage with 'the public' including the Daily Mail. For a brief history of this see here (and for my own personal analysis here taken from a great book of the event edited by Rosemary Bechler).

What we did with the Convention wasn't designed as a "lefty" event but as a radical one seeking to alert the public. We made a big impact, including in the Daily Mail (a leader no less) and thanks to Suzanne Moore in the Mail on Sunday. Sunny ran a packed bloggers' session. I invested a huge effort to get the left involved. But the more Labour-inclined said that while "of course" they mostly agreed it "helped the Tories". Certainly it helped educate them that the issues mattered! What was decisive was that we touched a public nerve and could demonstrate this while our vids (the key to wider, public communication) proved the potential of our 'wake up call'.

Today, Labour leadership candidates ask why Labour got ID cards and civil liberty so wrong. They have yet to admit that we got it right. I think it is important, in fact essential when criticisms like Carmen's are made, that those who don't deserve it are named and praised. This is the way to build the better, more positive and public-facing culture Carmen argues for.

Now for the issue she is onto. Why don't we equal the kind of stories that the right publishes that touches a public nerve? She asks,

What do the left want to achieve? I don’t want people to agree with me because I’m better at arguing, I want people to agree with me because they’ve looked at how policy has affected their lives versus those who make the decisions and can see for themselves what I’m saying.

The right wing media make it easy for people to agree with them: Newspaper columns have a fairly straightforward agenda and the content appeals to us on a personal level.

The personal stories I'd like to see at the moment concern bankers. If I had the resources of the Daily Mail, I'd ask: what is it like to get a £2 million bonus? How many are getting bonuses on this scale? Over £6 billion were apparently paid out last year - is that right?. What were their earnings in the first payment before their bonus? What do they spend it on? What do they do to deserve it? I want some individual stories not generic ones. Are they all happily married with two children, as the Tories seem to approve of? This demands a couple of experienced journalists.

There are a lot more such stories to be told. Of course, it is great to learn about what the cuts are doing to regular people. But the public also wants to know what is really going on, and this means reporting on - in the case of the bankers - the enemy. Such work has to be resourced by imaginative people with some financial support.

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