By Richard Heller
this year I wrote a letter to Ed Miliband seeking his views on the relationship between religion and politics. I asked him specifically whether he had appointed a shadow minister for faith as a counter to Baroness Warsi and whether he intends to appoint a real faith minister if he forms a government.
In spite of several reminders, I received no reply, although Miliband sent me several breathless emails to say how eager he was to hear from me about how to reform British politics.
The long silence made me fear that I was on some kind of blacklist. I have sometimes been a bit rude to him, particularly when I compared him unfavourably to Mr Ed the Talking Horse, hero of the popular American sitcom in the late 1960s. So I invented Wynford Smith, recently returned to England after making a fortune in the United States.
Wynford sent Miliband an admiring letter earlier this summer. It congratulated him on giving a new direction to the Labour party and making it clear that his government would be radically different from those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Wynford then expressed his hope of becoming "a regular and substantial donor to the Labour party". But he asked Miliband to clear up one issue beforehand.
"My experience of the United States has given me an abiding hatred of religious politics," my imaginary creation wrote.
"I despise appeals to faith on any political issue, even when I agree with the policy concerned. I believe that such appeals carry grave threats to democratic discourse, and I think it wrong that faith groups, which in the United States and here enjoy significant hidden subsidies from other taxpayers, should award themselves a special right to influence the law and public policy and seek to impose their views on others who disagree with them."
Rather stately language in places, but it left no doubt where Wynford stood. He then invited Ed Miliband to give his personal views on those issues and invited him to confirm as a matter of fact that "the Labour party does not solicit votes or membership of financial contributions on religious grounds and that it does not offer any kind of privileged access or dialogue to faith groups of any kind".
In the good old days of Lord Levy, Wynford might have received an invitation to play a set of tennis with Tony Blair. Ed Miliband needs "high-value donors" much more than Blair, having promised to forego much of Labour's regular income from the political levy. But Wynford received no reply of any kind. He was not offered so much as a rubber of whist with the leader, or even a round of parcheesi.
I wondered if all those smarties in Ed Miliband’s office had rumbled that Wynford was a phoney? Had they realizsd that it was me, the bad guy, trying to fly under their radar?
Not so, because Wynford got a letter on a month later from someone in Miliband's Correspondence Unit. The delay alone would almost certainly have annoyed Wynford enough to give his money to a cat's home rather than the Labour party. He would have been further irritated by the signatory, whose status and even gender were not identified. If he had bothered to read it, the actual reply would have lost him as a donor, because it so obviously avoided answering his questions.
"While Mr Miliband is an atheist, he and the Labour party acknowledge and respect the importance of faith in the lives of many people in our country," it read.
"As the Labour party we seek to engage with and represent people of all faiths and none." (The term 'engage with' is a piece of soggy sociologese which would have made Wynford reach for his revolver. Millions of real voters have been driven away from politics by expressions of this kind. Describing problems as 'challenges' has a similar effect, as does the increasingly common term 'ownership' to convey some vague sense of responsibility. One may even hear all three together, as in: 'We are engaging with neighbourhood leaders to ensure that all their communities take ownership of the challenge of anti-social behaviour.')
The reply continued: "We aim to open up politics and engage more people with the political process in our country." There it is again. Bang! Another revolver shot rings out.
Then the reply shifts away altogether from the subject Wynford cared about, with a couple of paragraphs about Ed Miliband's proposed reforms of party membership and finance, which were "a key part of his mission to make Britain a more open, democratic and dynamic country where the big decisions which affect people’s lives are no longer taken only by a rich and powerful few." Wynford might or might not have followed and admired those reforms but they do not answer either his general or his specific questions. This evasion would make him fear the worst. He would suspect that Labour directly solicits money or support from people on religious grounds and intends to continue. If he read this recent story about Labour selling Eid cards with political messages his suspicions would be deepened.
Finally the letter invited Wynford to call a number to talk to some party official about how best to become a contributor. That call is not going to happen. Someone should have called him first and a long time ago.
In a way, Wynford's treatment is reassuring. You cannot buy a quicker or more intelligent reply from this Labour leader by promising him money. But Miliband must get better at dealing with his mail. He need not go as far as Thomas Jefferson, who answered correspondents by hand when he was President of the United States, but he needs to ensure that his correspondents feel that they have gained something from writing to him.
Everyone deserves a fast reply which proves that the letter or email has been understood, which answers any questions directly and honestly, which expresses genuine thanks for any kind of gift or offer. It may be shocking to say this but correspondents who are (or might be) rich or influential need to have special and faster attention before they get angry with the Labour party and its leader.
This is not only good manners, it is elementary prudent politics. People who write to politicians are very unusual, but by definition they are the voters most 'engaged with' (Bang!) the political system. They explain political issues for other voters among their families and friends and in their working and social surroundings, and influence their behaviour. Those who are hostile can be partly disarmed by a civil and intelligent reply and those who are favourable (the majority) are potential party workers, members or donors.
On the basis of my experience – and Wynford's – Ed Miliband’s people are throwing them and their money away.
Richard Heller was formerly political adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He has been a professional speechwriter for over thirty years and is the author of standard manual High Impact Speeches (published by Prentice Hall Business).
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