What next for Labour?

Labour took a hammering in the election.  There’s no way around that.  Everyone within the party, from every wing, faction and background has admitted it.  And not only was it a battering, but in the process they lost seats, many seats, that until very recently (even until the actual night of the election) almost no one would have predicted would ever vote anything but Labour.  Clearly something went wrong.  The question for Labour, therefore, is what must they do to make it right.

One argument being made is that they simply need a different face at the head of the party.  This argument goes that they won the argument at the election, but lost on Brexit.  With Brexit off the agenda, the theory is that they could take their winning argument to the polls at the next election and take government.  Yet the problem with this is that Labour lost so badly at the last election.  To claim, after a result like this, that they won the argument seems not so much wrong as self-deluded.  As the results came in, Labour MPs past and present queued up to denounce the Labour messaging and leadership and, above all, its domination by Momentum, the hard left pressure group that has come to dominate the party and drive its policy.  Advocates of the “we won the argument but Brexit” approach come mainly from the Momentum wing of the party.  This is entirely unsurprising.  Their only chance at power over the country is through leadership of the Labour Party.  To agree or suggest that their policy and message is what lost the election would be to admit that they must stand down from the leadership.  Brexit was, without a doubt, the dominant issue at this election.  But to argue that policy and plans for the country aside from Brexit were completely ignored (which they would have to be if they won the argument but still lost the election this badly) for the sake of it is plainly wrong.  This is not the route to redemption for Labour.

Another option mooted for the Labour Party has been to return to the centrism of the Blair years.  After all, Tony Blair is easily the most successful Labour politician in Labour history, with the biggest – by a long way – parliamentary majority of any post-war leader.  The voters of the former “Red Wall” in the north that flocked to the Conservatives at the last election are not natural Tory voters, and, given a viable alternative in Labour, would return to their natural party, the argument could go.  However, it was New Labour that arguably began the erosion of the party’s support in these areas.  Evidence suggests that the message put out by the party during the Blair/Brown era attracted progressively fewer votes among working class communities in the Red Wall area but more and more among young, middle class graduates.  An accusation that surfaced immediately after the election was that the party now came across as being run by a metropolitan, paternalist clique and that it was pitched at the same demographic.  If this is the case, then a return to the “centre”, while it may make the party more acceptable to more affluent, professional types (a fair number of whom in any case voted for Labour at the last election in protest at the Tories’ Brexit position), would not in and of itself be enough to win back the former Red Wall constituencies – a change of tone would seem to be more needed.  Even were this to be achieved, however, there is no guarantee that Labour will easily win these seats back – now that these constituencies have got the bad taste at voting Tory out of their mouths in this election, they will find it easier to do so in future elections.  Winning these seats back therefore depends, to a large extent, on what the Tories do in these areas over the next five years as much as what Labour do.

On this point of the party’s image, another argument to surface since the result is that Labour needs a different type of leader – in that the next one should be female, working class, and not from London.  For all of his working-class solidarity credentials, Jeremy Corbyn is an out and out Londoner  – and an Islingonite at that, a constituency famous for its teeming ranks of metropolitan, media, elite types.  Even Boris Johnson lived there until 2018.  Corbyn also, at the time of writing, still identifies as male.  Many have suggested that in order to re-connect to areas outside London, as well as to shed the ignominy of being the only major party not to have been led by a woman (even the progressive Lib Dems ticked that one off in July 2019), a young, working class, northern woman should be selected.  Enter Rebecca Long-Bailey, the great hope of the Labour left.  In fact, this is in part an extension of the “we won the argument” approach – Long-Bailey is widely regarded as John McDonnell’s protege, and the fact that she fits all of the criteria being discussed in this paragraph is used to bolster her case for the job.  Yet, talented though Long-Bailey arguably is, her background and gender won’t be decisive in any general election.  For the obvious counter-point to this line of argument is one of the two above mentioned Islingtonites – Boris Johnson.  Etonian, white, male (possibly pale and stale), and a London journalist, no less, Johnson nonetheless won over the voters of the Red Wall as well as a large majority of the rest of the country.  The focus on the cosmetic image of the party smacks all too much of the spin and lack of substance that is ever more associated with the Blair/Brown/Cameron/Clegg era.  It was message and policy that won this election – all the leader needed to do was convince the electorate that he would deliver on his promises.  While many in the capital still find it hard to fathom, the evidence from outside London is that much of the rest of the country was convinced by Boris.  It doesn’t matter the background of the leader.  It’s the message that counts nowadays.  In fact, making a meal of a candidate’s background as a deliberate strategy may even backfire come the next election.  The British electorate is not so snobbish as to believe that a person is limited by their background – because they understand that for that to apply to working class backgrounds, it must also apply to all backgrounds.

So what to do?  To this author, it would seem quite simple.  For a start, the socialism of Corbyn’s manifesto must go.  Foot, Kinnock, Corbyn – where Momentum sees a series of mitigating circumstances, most others see a pattern.  The British public just doesn’t want a far left government.  What’s needed is a pragmatic, practical and deliverable programme (some might call this “centrist” – the term constantly moves about and has been claimed by such wildly different sides in this election that it has been shown to be what it is – a pretty meaningless lable, convenient only really to the far left).  The difficulty in delivering this will be in how to differentiate their policy from Johnson’s.  Where Blair seized the initiative in his time, proposing largely sensible economic polices before the Conservatives could do so themselves, thus leaving the Tories struggling to explain much that they would do differently, Johnson has done this himself now.  Post-Thatcher Tory norms of tight pursestrings have been somewhat abandoned by Johnson’s government, for example, with an infrastructure spending splurge driven by historically low interest rates.  The challenge for Labour will be to provide an attractive, clear alternative, yet one that doesn’t resort to the kind of wild and ruinous giveaways that the public almost always sees as reckless and infeasible.

The second step should be to fight for the country, not just to regain their old heartlands.  They should fight hard in the Red Wall seats that have hardly ever been anything but Labour, but this election would suggest that class and family history are far less strong ties to party allegiance now than ever before.  It’s highly possible, perhaps even likely, that a fair number of Tory converts at this election will come back to the party at the next election, but it is also highly possible, perhaps even likely, that a large number will not.  Focusing on these areas would be to neglect the rest of the country.   If the Tories do manage to revitalise high streets and local areas, as they have pledged to, then it will likely be even harder to win these areas back.  Labour should be very alert to the possibility that we may just have seen the beginning of the re-drawing of the political landscape.  They should focus on offering a viable, national alternative, not a lobby group for areas that don’t necessarily even want them.  Otherwise they risk whittling down their support even further at the next election.

Finally, it should cease regarding itself as a class-based movement.  As alluded to above, the working class have for years been seeing their interests more and more as being represented by other parties.  At the same time, the party’s middle-class voter base has been going up and up.  The irony of the position the party is now in is that the people it wants to represent no longer feel represented by it, but in trying to represent them it is making both its membership and its support base more and more dominated by people with little or no experience of working class life.  If it truly wants to represent and support the working class, then it must deliver on their concerns – and their concerns include national, regional, cultural, and aspirational issues.  Debate in this country has never been overly charged by class identity, but to the extent that it has, this is clearly on the decline.  The electorate, from all sections of society bar a particular tranche of the metropolitan middle class, are asking for politics to address issues from a position of reality, circumstance and pragmatism, not from a position of class interest.  The party may have to present itself now as a liberal party rather than a workers party, opposing the Tories on national issues of the day rather than “state-of-social-relations” issues of the past.  But however they present themselves, they will have to make sure that they occupy a position that can move with the debate, rather than one that remains rooted to past issues while the modern debate passes it by.

When I say it seems simple what they must do, that is not to say this will make them win at the next election.  They have fallen a long way in the support stakes, and it will likely be very hard to get back.  I am simply suggesting that this is their best route to getting back into contention.  What’s more, this isn’t considering the internal barriers and stumbling blocks within Labour – Momentum control all the main levers of power, for example, including a dominating hold over the membership.  Yet, if the party can whip itself into shape in time for 2024, then suddenly the Tories will be looking nervous.  Those gains of 2019 will suddenly seem very precarious and, as indicated above, there is still a large chance that a viable Labour Party will still prove too much of a home for the defectors to the Tories, who may return at the next election to create an interesting result.  But even in that case, the Tories will be strategising and campaigning hard to hold on to those seats – and, whatever the state of Labour during the last election, you have to hand it to the the Conservative strategists for engineering a result like that given the state this country was in (re Brexit impasse and stagnation) after successive conservative governments.  Nonetheless, if Labour is in good nick, it could be more of a contest than perhaps most would believe right now.

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