Sunday, 7 June 2015

So where does Labour go from here?

The UK Labour Party is in a mess. It has just got hammered by the electorate, at a time when many high-ups in the party believed (or professed to believe) that they might be on the verge of returning to power after just one term in opposition. It is a stunning psychological blow, and Labour is still reeling.

All the party's ideas - about community campaigning, about 'uniting the left', about a sophisticated, 'triangulated' and multi-layered policy offer - were wrong. Just wrong. So wrong, in fact, that we need to reach far back in history (as is our job) to remember a time when Labour seemed to be in the same amount of trouble. At the 1931 and 1935 elections, perhaps, in which it was first shattered by defections and reduced to a mere rump, and then recovered only in the reddest of its heartlands. In 1959, perhaps, when all the trendlines of economic and social change appeared to be against it in a conservative (and Conservative) society of affluence and ease. And 1983, when Michael Foot's party (above) was nearly obliterated by a post-Falklands War Margaret Thatcher and left-of-centre defectors to the new Social Democratic Party.

Now on all those occasions, Labour recovered. It dug deep. It retreated to its heartlands. It (eventually) renewed itself under a credible leader and a new programme. It returned to power in 1945, 1964 and 1997. For long periods of time (1964-79, 1997-2010) there has even been talk of Labour as 'the natural party of government'. It can do it again. It can come back. But only if it begins to think about its problems in a historical manner. Not to 'learn from history' - such a trite recommendation would be easily and rightly laughed off, for no new political situation is just like another - but to set its difficulties in context, and try to develop a map or typology of its true problems. What follows are just a few thoughts - an initial list of historical indicators - but they might be instructive.

Realise what a disastrous mess you're in. Labour is now in a mire deeper even than 1959 or 1983, because it has lost control of what it once regarded as its Scottish heartlands. Doubtless in many ways the party deserved that fate, for it had taken Scots for granted for far too long, and ignored all the warning signs that the Scottish National Party was gaining control of Scottish civil society and the Scottish national imagination. But it still came as a shock. And it means that, unlike in 1983, it cannot retreat to its Caledonian fastnesses to lick its wounds. There aren't any - and they don't look like being rebuilt any time soon. That means that the party would have to win 100 seats in England and Wales, almost all of them directly from the Conservatives, to gain even a tiny overall majority. And if they fail next time to win a single seat from the SNP, they have to win Chingford and Woodford Green as well as Filton and Bradley Stoke (majorities: 8,386 and 9,838) on swings of about 10%. It's not going to happen easily, and it probably won't happen soon. And this is all before the Conservatives' planned boundary reforms and granting of the vote to all older ex-pat voters who've been away from the UK for more than 15 years. A Labour victory in 2020 is a very, very, very, very tall order. Have we made that clear enough now?

Pick a leader who chimes with the voters. This is probably the most important element of Labour's renewal. Each of the three leaders who have delivered Labour from the wilderness have sounded and looked liked swing voters in English marginal seats. Clement Attlee, clipped and military and short of any 'unnecessary' words and phrases, all order, parsimony and the cricket results; Harold Wilson, Yorkshire and chip suppers, scientific slide rule, gannex max and all; Tony Blair, full of 'y'knows' and 'I means', drinking-coffee-from-a-mug and Mondeo-driving personification of Middle England. This is not a question of policy. Wilson had come from the Left, Attlee from the centre, Blair from the Right of the party. But very few voters care for policy, and most of them don't listen to them even when they're adduced if your leader hasn't gained you the right to a hearing. Sympathy, efficiency, likeability and credibility are more important. On this basis, out of four not-particularly-inspiring candidates, straight-talking Liz Kendall, born in Watford, and educated at a 'normal' local state school, looks, acts, thinks and sounds most like the type of voter Labour must capture, assuming all the while that Scotland is gone forever and isn't coming back. Yvette Cooper might work, at a push: Andy Burnham won't. It's that simple.

Rebuild from the bottom up. This is what Labour did in the 1930s. It took control of (for instance) the London County Council and made it into a beacon of what tough-minded, responsible socialist administration could do. Build houses. Build new schools and roads and hospitals. Keep the finances tidy. Keep the lights on. You know the sort of thing. Under Herbert Morrison, who later went on to become Home Secretary in the wartime coalition, the LCC was trusted, competent, powerful - and Labour. If only, Labour people must wish, Labour administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh had been such beacons of what a social democratic politics might be and then become. For one of the key problems in the 2015 General Election was Labour's lack of credibility on the economy. Conservative barbs about the struggles of the devolved National Health Service in Wales also struck home. Running a big city (by - for instance - winning the London mayoralty), as well as holding onto control of the Welsh Assembly and upping Labour's game there, will be central to creating a sense that Labour can be trusted again. Hundreds more elected councillors who can do the hard work of engaging with voters on the ground, day after day and week after week, as well as campaigning in actual elections, won't hurt either.

So that's it then. Realise that you're disliked by most of the electorate. That you have no cultural connection with vast swathes of working people - and that even if you did, you might still go backwards at the next election. Pick a leader who looks and sounds and acts like the voters you want to give you a hearing. And rebuild from the grassroots.

It can be done. Labour have been deep in the wilderness before. Without Scotland, the path becomes much steeper and rockier, but it's possible. There's no sociological explanation about changing views of class, no argument based on rising living standards, no weight of deeply comfortable suburban England that means that the decent, mainstream, conservative-minded, silent majority of the English are incapable of being stirred, roused and awoken by an Attlee, a Wilson or a Blair.

But it's still likely to be a hard, hard road - made no easier by being the only road.


  1. Not sure that I find Liz Kendall that enticing: See her resurrecting the old tabloid myth that migrant workers are simply coming to this country for benefits. On the Andrew Marr programme she said that she could back a benefits curb on EU migrants, saying removing tax credits available to them is "definitely something we should look at".
    "We do have to deal with the issue of people who come here to work. They must be working and not claiming benefits," she said.

    But as you and most of your readers will know, migrants don't claim benefits in the UK. It's something like 2% of the welfare budget. So curbing benefits won't impact immigration. It won't save money.

    And if Cameron eventually gets his way, it will mean EU migrants won't be entitled to any support in their first 4 years in the UK, meaning that, if they face misfortune two years in, they will be left to beg and starve on the street. Cruel and short sighted.

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