Tracey Follows
Tracey Follows
A view from Tracey Follows

Labour must embrace the 'information age' to win back its lost voters

After a brusing election defeat, Labour needs more than just a new leader. How can it modernise and reinvent its role in society to make itself relevant once more? Marketing columnist and futurist Tracey Follows offers her thoughts.

How can the Labour party, a brand that has badly lost touch with the people, carve out a radical new direction? It’s certainly not an easy task, but there are some useful approaches that the party could be thinking about now.

Firstly, this is not about the people. All too often people look at an organisation, or an event, and are quick to blame the people involved. Yes, they are responsible, in part, for the outcome; but people are, in the main, doing exactly what the system has set them up to do. 

Anything you care to look at in the world is in some way a system; from education, health and communications to the internet, your village square and even your supermarket loyalty card. A system is made up of interrelated parts and only when you modify the relationships between those parts will the structure of the system actually change. That then brings about change in the wider world.

Structural change

One of the problems with the Labour Party is that it is itself part of an outmoded system. The structure of that system includes relationships with unions – and it is an important part of the system, because that is how the party is funded. It was in fact the unions who placed Ed Miliband in charge. We cannot blame him for presenting a backward-looking, left-wing manifesto that the country eschewed; we can only blame the backward-looking, left-wing system that put him in the leadership position.

One of the mistakes Miliband made was to attack the people involved in other systems: greedy bankers, nasty Tories, wealthy home-owners, monopolistic companies… the list goes on. This didn’t fly with the electorate. That is not just because it felt another party offered something better, it was also that he was going after the people, rather than offering to change the systems of which they were a part. Ironically, when he did have a chance to consider changing a system – the UK’s relationship within the EU – he didn’t take it.

If the Labour party does one thing now, it should be to envision a new future, not just for the party, but for the whole country. That requires reimagining the kinds of systems one would like to have in place in a 21st-century Britain.

The United Kingdom is a system whose fundamental structure is being eroded by nationalist tendencies day by day. So, rather than just trying to preserve that old system, Labour would be wise to propose a new alternative.

Then there’s the education system – that needs completely overhauling, as does everything from housing to the House of Lords. Imagining new and better systems in which everyone can succeed, not just the few, is a better way for Labour to proceed than simply denouncing its opposition, or punishing those one is envious of in the current system.

Proactive thinking

When brands like Coca-Cola, Microsoft or McDonald's lose relevancy with consumers, those in the C-suite don’t sit around moaning that "people just didn’t get us", they realise that they haven’t kept up with consumers. So they investigate different worldviews, emerging values and trends. They work out a better way to connect with the modern world, with contemporary culture, and create future scenarios based on what people are beginning to value more, and what they now value less.

In its campaign, the Labour party presented voters with a 1970s worldview, based on traditional values of class, ordinariness, thrift, duty, acceptance and conformity. There is nothing wrong with those values, but they are no longer very prevalent in today’s society. Since that traditional worldview was held, we have moved through ‘modernist’ values about achievement, and even 'post-modernist’ values about meaningfulness. We have now arrived at an era characterised by ‘integral’ values, which are to do with ‘making a difference’.

If the Labour Party and its brand can now find a way to embrace integral values such as connectivity, influence, integration, interdependence, tolerance and assistance, then they are on their way to envisioning a  raft of new systems that will enthuse the electorate in 2020.

While David Cameron is still presenting postmodern systems based on community, diversity and sustainability on behalf of the Conservatives, the Labour Party could be talking about something much more modern and, dare I say it, progressive.

This could include: finding a way to ensure that everyone – the poor, the old, even the rural and remote – has access to superfast broadband, so that everyone can enjoy connectivity, not just those rich enough to afford it. It sounds like a superficial thing, but in a world of always-on connectivity, if you are not connected you can’t do business, educate yourself, or buy things as cheaply. In a new justice system, internet connectivity could become a human right, and why not? This would signal that Labour has moved from addressing the Industrial Age to embracing the Information Age.

In a new justice system, internet connectivity could become a human right, and why not? This would signal that Labour has moved from addressing the Industrial Age to embracing the Information Age.

Similarly, presenting a system in which automation is not a threat but an opportunity for people to be more creative in business and in employment would be another big win. The rise of the robots is coming, but who is creating a system that can accommodate both human and automated employment rights?

And then there is the NHS. This is a system that is in total collapse and no one seems willing to address the fact that a new system is required. A new system based on digital health could improve performance and deliver efficiencies through interdependent information services. If we could self-diagnose using apps and IT, talk to doctors any time, any day because we can do so virtually, and have all of our medical records integrated in the cloud, then that would take a huge amount of pressure off A&E – and that is just the start.

So, my message to Labour is: by all means pick another leader, but until you envision some new systems for modern society, nothing will change and 2020 won’t turn out to be the 1997 you are hoping for.