Setting up a business isn’t totally alien from winning an election. In part one I examined how my experience of electioneering gave me so many vital skills which helped me succeed commercially. But my commercial experience also gave me a fresh look on Labour Party life.
1. Limited resources requires sharp focus
Limited resources, both financially and in terms of manpower means you have to choose between different options. For example, Trufflenet ran a reasonably effective Twitter account for a while (it built relationships which generated sales) but we didn’t have time to blog. I always wanted to do a customer newsletter but never had time. Lunching clients was more effective.
In contrast, the Labour Party tries to do too much. For example, in a meeting about digital I asked whether the intention was to service members, win hearts and minds, organise activists or shape public debate. The smart answer was ‘all of the above’ but the truth is that we don’t have the capacity to do all equally well. David Miliband used his leadership campaign to highlight the party’s own lack of corporate social responsibility. He’s absolutely right that this is a weakness (particularly when criticising ‘predators’) but is it a priority given our financial state?
2. Nice words don’t reap rewards
Before I launched the business, 98% of people I met thought we had a great idea. All were hugely encouraging. Yet no prospective client parted with cash. There was a gulf between the analysis of a concept and the delivery of a compelling proposition. It is unlikely to have been realised in focus groups.
Nice words are important in politics. The context surrounding the ‘brand’ sets a mood, although the ‘consumer’ isn’t usually listening. But as Glenys Kinnock remarked in 1992, there’s a difference between people liking you and voting for you. I suspect we weren’t liked in 2005, but we still got votes. Converting doorstep conversations from vague encouragement to pledges of support requires skill.
3. There’s a gap between what you say and what people hear
The subject has been done to death by people more expert than me. But it rarely ceases to surprise me how the best crafted messages get heard differently when they are exposed to the real world. From the pronunciation and memorability of your company name to the description of the service down to vitally important issues like the wording of commercial proposals and agreements – the expectation gap is significant.
For years I knocked on doors with a script which asked ‘which political party do you identify with?’. Even when I corrected the poor structure of the sentence for posh houses, it still didn’t make sense. Yet we used it perpetually across the country.
4. Make the right impression
In the first year of the business I knew that the first contact, if bad, would be the last opportunity with that person, and by extension that company. A typo in a flyer, an email without an attachment could all cause commercial failure. One of the most important lessons I learnt was trying to limit failure to a small sample. Rather than distributing a mailshot to 1,000, I sent it to 10 and found out if it worked.
I’m sure that the Labour Party does lots of market testing of which I’m unaware. And much of its materials are often very good – with the resources available. But I’ve also put some utter crap through people’s doors; material that is worse than a fried chicken advert. Whilst on the leaflet we’re claiming to be able to run a council or a government!
5. You don’t need permission
Seth Godin isn’t all wrong! In business, if you do something that works, people will buy into it. But no matter how much buy in you get beforehand, if it doesn’t work, you will be left standing alone. But if you are successful, the chances are (assuming they pass a basic political test) the activities will be embraced by others. Oh – and if you really want to get involved in the Labour Party – you just have to turn up to a campaigning session.
For years I worried about the structures and processes of the Labour Party. I feared that they were off-putting, archaic and a barrier to progress. Little did I realise how little structures matter. If you want to do something, you can. In a current political party the earliest measure of success if whether you can engage other people consistently.
6. Success is fleeting
There was no greater feeling than winning a contract; winning a big contract; hitting income targets. It was almost enough to justify the misery of those months where none of those things happened. And then at the end of the month it starts all over again. I kept my sanity by breaking it down in to manageable chunks to ensure a steady supply line – the number of meetings in a month, the number of proposals generated a week, the number of calls made in a day.
In politics, winning an election or passing a bill can be such an all-consuming activity that it feels conclusive. It isn’t – and I’m sure that’s not news to people who hold public office. Winning an election is the start, not the end. It is less of a mandate than it ever was. Yet the Labour Party is engaged in some wars that will never be won. Successes need to be identified but never taken for granted.
7. We have more in common than we know
Outside the Labour Party it’s hard to remember the details of who you are meant to like and who you aren’t; who’s a Blairite and who isn’t; who’s done what to whom. And it doesn’t even matter. Occasionally, I’d go to dinner and say pious things to political friends like ‘does any of this really matter when the economy is in such a state?’.
By the time I stopped active politics I was very clear what side I was on. And that wasn’t just the Labour side but a sub group within. That reflects badly on me rather than the Labour Party. But now I look to get back involved with the party, I’m struck by how nice most of its members are, and how much we have in common.