Opinion: Should we really be proclaiming that “Labour is finished”?

It has been a tumultuous time for politics and, although it may seem an age ago, it is in fact less than a month since a brave Nick Clegg rose during Prime Miniuster’s Questions to pronounce that Labour was finished. Unsurprisingly, the quip prompted howls of laughter and jeers of derision from the Labour benches, but it certainly struck a chord with the news editors.

The soundbite was replayed over and over again on the rolling news channels, guaranteeing maximum exposure for Clegg and reinforcing the message that Labour was under siege. The results which followed in the local and European elections seemed to give the claim more credence. The Government suffered a meltdown more sensational than even the most dire predictions and the ‘Labour is finished’ line was repeated with great fervour by a number of Liberal Democrat spokespeople.

The question I want to raise here is whether there is any merit in Liberal Democrats across the country continuing to proclaim that ‘Labour is finished’. Do we believe that a message which attacks Labour as a spent electoral force will galvanise ex-Labour supporters into voting for us? After all, this would be a bizarre departure from the status quo; in the past it has always been the Liberal Democrats who have been branded by our rivals as a ‘party of protest’ or representing a ‘wasted vote’. Do we honestly believe that employing a similar tactic against Labour will win hearts and minds amongst those who feel let down by the Government?

My personal view is that to continue to peddle the line that ‘Labour is finished’ on a national level would be a misjudgement. Quite simply, I cannot envisage the electorate responding positively to a message which does nothing but celebrate our rivals’ woes. Let’s leave it to Cameron and the Conservatives to engage in the type of politics which belittles other parties’ poll ratings while referring to themselves as an ‘incoming Government’, before a ballot is cast. The Liberal Democrats are capable of so much more.

So, if I am cautioning against saying ‘Labour is finished’, what are the alternative messages we could cultivate in a national ‘air war’ campaign? Some may view this suggestion as a minor semantic difference, but I would be far more comfortable with pursuing the line; ‘Labour: Opportunity Squandered’. This would not however be a message in isolation. ‘Labour: Opportunity Squandered’, must be then be accompanied with a positive evocation of how Liberal Democrat policies are best suited to truly drive an extension of opportunity for all. With such a message, I would like to think that we both encapsulate voters’ disappointment with Labour, but also tap into their desire for supporting a positive, progressive alternative.

I am certain that regular Voice readers will have some suggestions of their own, and as both a party activist and communications consultant I look forward to hearing them!

* Andrew Lewin is a Lib Dem member and activist in Hertford and Stortford.

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24 Comments

  • “Opportunity squandered” sounds great, but it’s a bit long. Personally, I’d go for the visual – a picture of a goalmouth with the ball flying high over the bar. “Missed chance” would be the slogan.

  • Actually, you could illustrate it with football photos – Chris Iwelomu’s miss for Scotland against Norway in England, and Stuart Pearce, David Beckham, Gareth Southgate (amongst many others) for Scotland & Wales….

  • May I commend a couple of lines in Gary Younge’s piece in the grauniad
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/21/labour-voting-tories-threat

    Labour deserves defeat – but the country does not deserve the ­Conservatives.

    If you keep resorting to the lesser of two evils, you just end up with evil.

    surely a slogan there you wordsmiths.

  • Mark Littlewood 22nd Jun '09 - 3:40pm

    I don’t think “Opportunity Squandered” is anywhere near tough enough. I’d use that sort of phrase to sum up my frustration when England lose on penalties. Brown and Blair have done a lot worse than scoop a metaphorical shot over a bar.

    My sense is that the public’s present state of mind is not just that New Labour have failed to grasp an opportunity, but that they have completely and utterly screwed things up. We need to tap into the public’s blind fury, not imagine that they are only feeling disappointment.

    But my worry about the slogan “Labour is finished” – and something it shares with “Opportunity Squandered” – is that its descriptive rather than prescriptive.

    If I believe that Labour really are finished, I don’t really need to bother to vote.

    I can’t quite conjure up an elegant phrase to express my sentiments, but it would be along the lines of “Kick them out to clean it up”

  • Doesn’t this conversation miss the point? The LibDems need to put themselves forward as a separate, viable alternative, slogans such as ‘opportunity squandered’ imply that Labour ideas are sound but the implementation bad; we need to make it clear that the reason why Labour have failed the country is because their ideas, their philosophy and dogmatic approach was never going to work in the first place, and promote an alternative of progressive liberalism.
    Exactly the same sorts of things were said when the tories were in difficulty, and it didn’t get us very far.
    The biggest thing you hear about the libdems, time and again, is that the public generally think quite positive things but don’t know what we stand for – until that changes, no slogans will work

  • Oh dear this argument can really be summed up as ‘let’s not be beastly to Labour’

    Yes I can see how that’s going to be a vote winner. We, of course, can trust the Tories not paint us as Labour’s country/suburban cousins in that circumstance – not.

    Labour ARE finished they are going down to an epoch changing defeat and our job is to be riding the tsunami of public anger demanding a change – not standing in its way.

    ‘Labour is finished’ doesn’t go far enough – they deserve to be destroyed utterly and their nasty, centralised, authoritarian, nannying, useless and hectoring smugness consigned to the dustbin of history. And the Liberal Democrats need to be clearly part of the movement to banish these evil, lying venal warmongers for good.

  • passing tory 22nd Jun '09 - 4:25pm

    Labour are not finished, nor are they likely to be for a long time. I doubt whether it would even be desirable for the body politic if it were possible to “finish them off”.

    Their ideals will always appeal to a certain type of younger mind, and so there will always be a steady flow of “true believers” into the Labour ranks.

    As there is a heavy overlap (both historical and current) between the SDP side of the Lib Dems and parts of the Labour tribe then it might be possible for the Lib Dems to subsume part of Labour but that would expose their right flank [standard caveat about dimensionality of political space notwithstanding] disastrously.

  • We are not the negation of Labour, we are the Lib Dems. With limited capital to spend, we have to spend it on something positive. Also bear in mind that, while Labour are the incumbents, there are probably more prospective votes to win from the Tories. Or rather we don’t want to be killing the security guards while the Tories rob the bank…

    Something that taps into the public’s frustration with both main political parties and the economy.

    Lib Dems: No More “Business as Usual”
    Lib Dems: More of the Same Won’t Do
    Lib Dems: How About some Change…for a Change?
    Lib Dems: Send Them a Message

    etc etc etc

  • Not with 18-19% support for the Lib Dems, Labour isn’t finished. This at a time when we should be riding high at 25-30% plus. We should be really thinking hard about why we are performing so poorly at the moment. We are certainly in no position to start making claims like this.

    There is 20%+ of the electorate out there who are not voting for any of the three main parties. If we are aiming to replace Labour, we will need to win virtually all of this vote come the next General Election and then some. Precisely how are we going to do this on our current form?

  • I agree with the sentiments – Labour is finished is pretty useless, as is Lib dems replacing Labour, no sorry conservatives, no hang on I meant Labour depending on which other party is up or down in the polls.

    The message needs to be on the lines of
    changing the people without changing the system is no change at all. You can use whatever example you like.

    It must aim to convince people that Cameron is not change and you can’t trust his party to deliver.

    The Lib Dems need a few key phrases to keep repeating – echoing Cameron broken society, “Politics is broken and needs fixing”

    Politics is broken because parties ignore votes, they ignore pledge to hold referendums, they listen to big money not average voters

    The strategy needs to accept Labour have lost and Cameron will be PM, and explain what difference the lib dems could make in a hung parliament ?

  • What a lot of politically aware people often forget is that, to an awfully large share of the electorate, politics is still a two party game. The day of the London mayoral election last year, I heard an intelligent Cambridge-educated manager at my workplace expressing surprise that there were more candidates on his ballot paper that morning than just Boris and Ken.

    Most people spend far too little time thinking about politics, and so are content to reduce the whole business to a game of ‘Party A vs Party B’. It’s deeply imperfect, and FPTP exacerbate the problem. Nonetheless, anything we can do to convince them that ‘A vs B’ now means ‘Liberal vs Tory’, not ‘Labour vs Tory’, is surely a good thing from our point of view. The closer we get to power, the closer we get to reforming the whole damned system.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jun '09 - 9:40pm

    Passing Tory


    Their ideals will always appeal to a certain type of younger mind, and so there will always be a steady flow of “true believers” into the Labour ranks.

    But what are those ideals? The problem is that in promoting itself as an efficient centre party, Labour has lost the sense of idealism which was once its sustaining point. I suspect many young people who know little of the pre-Blair Labour have no idea it once was the party which had the idea of being on the side of poorer and weaker people against the power of wealth.

  • It is obviously true that ‘Labour is finished’ as a government. Whether it is finished as a party remains to be seen, nonetheless it is politically bankrupt, close to financial bankruptcy and bankrupt of active members.

    Unless Nick Clegg makes dramatic pronouncements he will be ignored, I think he is coming to terms with this. The danger is that he may be made to appear ridiculous.

    In this case he is tapping into real anger in previously Labour heartlands. I know from experience in Bermondsey over 25 years ago that much of this traditional Labour support is soft, though not all of it is liberal. It is important that each statement that trashes Labour is accompanied by a statement that demonstrates that the Lib Dems stand up for many of those who have been forgotten by Labour.

  • “Labour is finished” was a good soundbite to produce one day ahead of the Euro election. It probably persuaded a few people to make a last-minute vote switch away from Labour.

    To go on saying it at regular intervals for the next year would convey a totally different message. That message would be “The best reason we can put forward for voting Lib Dem is that we have a useless opponent. We must be almost as useless ourselves, because we are having to rely on a purely negative campaign.”

    Bad idea.

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Jun '09 - 11:14pm

    I’m not going to attempt to come up with a slogan – not my skill at all. But David is right about “Labour’s finished”. It was a good line for the moment, and it’ll probably be a good line in passing during the general election campaign, but it has no place as a central message. Insofar as we want a negative message (and realistically every campaign will have negative as well as positive strands) it has to be one that lumps the big two together and tells people why they shouldn’t vote for either. Simply concentrating fire on Labour will send a barely subliminal “Vote Tory” message to too many voters.

  • Robson-
    Different time, different place. We live in a more anti-politics moment than ever before. The problem wasn’t the slogan, it was its application to what we see around us then and now.

  • Terry Gilbert 26th Jun '09 - 10:43pm

    I seem to remember Shirley Williams saying Labour was finished after a by-election win in the 1980s….

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