Labour’s Gene Hunt problem

If you really want to kill your organisation, but do not wish to be pro-active to the point of gunning down the staff or bringing in Enron’s accounting team, probably the best way to do it is to hire people who are unable to see things from the perspective of others. For me, it was the moment five years ago that it became apparent that Labour had made this mistake that betrayed a significant reason why it was about to lose the 2010 General Election.

A month prior to that year’s polling day, the party published a poster that depicted David Cameron as anti-hero Gene Hunt from BBC series Ashes to Ashes. For the uninitiated, Hunt is an aggressive old-fashioned police officer from the 1980s who spent the series clashing over policing methods with a 21st Century officer who had apparently fallen back in time (although the truth was later revealed to be rather more complex/implausible). The message that the poster, launched by the then Environment Secretary Ed Miliband, intended to convey was that Cameron would take Britain back to the “meaner and more brutal” Britain of the 1980s. However, somehow, the dozens of people who must have been involved in the process of publishing that poster failed to flag up that Hunt was actually an extremely popular figure with the public. As a result, Labour’s advert had the opposite impact to that which was intended, with even Cameron himself embracing the comparison.

Objectively of course, Hunt represented everything that was wrong with British police during that era, and like so many fictional cowboy cops, he would have been successful in the contemporary world for about as long as it took him to botch an investigation or get caught torturing innocent passersby. But that was not the point: the fact that literally no one in the chain of people who had to approve that poster thought that there might be a significant problem spoke volumes. Again, this wasn’t an obscure factual oversight: much as the BNP richly deserved the embarrassment that came along with the revelation that it had used a Spitfire from a Polish-manned RAF squadron in one of its anti-immigration posters, it was sort of understandable that they did not think to try to match the two letter code on the aircraft to a database of World War Two flying units. But those who were involved in the Labour poster knew who Hunt was, what he was like, and were doubtlessly familiar with many other of the examples of the genre he represented. But, somehow, they still didn’t get it.

Under Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, this calamitous lack of awareness of how things are perceived has become the norm. Even just examining the current election campaign, we have had the Russell Brand interview, the stone monolith, and Miliband’s refusal to engage with the issue of Labour’s past spending. None of these were horrific ideas in of themselves: we need more young people to vote; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with making sure manifesto pledges are kept to; and there is a pretty strong (if politically unspeakable) case to say that Labour’s main crime was to undertax, as opposed to overspend. But it remains the case that – for good or ill – much of the impact of a factual message is based on how the public view the way in which it is delivered.

It is possible to argue that this need to frame things in a way that is digestible to the population is insulting to their intelligence. But our best evidence suggest that the British public often have a weak grip on the facts when it comes to national issues. This does not, of course, imply that individuals are stupid. Instead, it means that collectively, people tend to take mental shortcuts when developing their opinions on topics outside of their experience – usually because they have more immediate problems or personal interests to be concerned with. Politicians have to burn through this tendency (at least where it suits their agenda), but to do so they at least need to be aware of how voters think. With Labour, there is scant evidence that this awareness is present in a way that allows them to frame their message in order to make a positive impact. The party may be about to learn the hard way that the most valuable employee in any organisation is often the one who takes it upon themselves to ask: “are you sure this a good idea boss?”