Abi Wilkinson: Labour must get back to basics to win over voters
Jeremy Corbyn and his comrades need to rediscover how to talk about power in a convincing way.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the Labour party is convincing voters that things can get better. That the current system isn’t simply the natural order of things, but the product of active human decision-making, and that it’s within our power to alter how society functions. A major reason Ed Miliband’s reform capitalism failed to capture the public imagination is that he never told a convincing story about the possibility of change. His campaign bounced between confusing abstract concepts and policy pledges which never seemed to come together into a single narrative.
Following the financial crash and subsequent collapse of the New Labour project, it was never going to be easy. How do you persuade voters you can improve their lives when it was your party in control as things took a turn for the worse? Even before 2008, the experience of people in many parts of the country was of slow and steady decline. The impact of policies like the minimum wage and expansion of the welfare state wasn’t trivial, but it didn’t amount to a reversal of the social changes which happened during the Thatcher years.
The technocratic, managerial approach of the Blair years conceded far too much ground to the logic of Conservatism. Voters weren’t asked to conceive of the Labour Party as a direct representation of working-class interests in aggregate – politics became about choosing which group of elites offered the best deal to you as an individual. This is the kind of thinking that Thatcher aimed to promote with policies like Right to Buy, which was intended to encourage working-class voters who benefited to identify their interests as aligned with those of a wealthy minority.
Turnout, particularly amongst young people, declined dramatically from 1997 onwards. When people who don’t vote are asked to explain their political disengagement, one of the most common responses given is that “they’re all the same”. Though there clearly are differences between Conservative and Labour policy, the conception of party politics as a genuine conflict of ideas seems to have been lost. For decades everyone seemed to agree on the big questions. ‘Electability’ now means proving you’re capable of operating efficiently according to rules that have already been set.
Because Labour happened to be in government when the financial crash hit, the Tories were able to effectively blame the crisis on the main point of difference between the parties: Labour’s higher spending on the welfare state. Though a national economy is actually rather different to a household budget, the narrative of “living within your means” made intuitive sense to voters. The fact that both major parties were enthusiastic proponents of financial deregulation, the real cause of the problem, made little difference.
Labour is struggling to claw back the perception of “economic competence” it needs to persuade voters to give it another chance, even as public opinion has turned against further government austerity. Under Jeremy Corbyn the party polls particularly dismally on this measure. Unless voters see you as competent and capable, it makes sense that they’re not going to be inclined to trust you to run an entire country.
Still, convincing people you’re not going to mess up is only half the battle. As well as losing voters to the Conservatives, Labour has haemorrhaged millions to non-voting and apathy. Still others have switched to the SNP or Ukip as new parties which might offer some sort of alternative to the status quo. Not making things worse isn’t enough, you have to show that you can make them better.
The Labour party emerged from the trade union movement. It initially existed as an expression of the strength of ordinary working people – that is, the strength than exists in numbers. It has become a cliche to repeat the observation made by former General Secretary Morgan Phillips, that Labour “owed more to Methodism than Marxism”. However, whatever the relative importance of various intellectual influences, the party’s initial electoral success was reliant on mass working-class consciousness and solidarity amongst its core voting block.
Labour needs to rediscover how to talk about power in a convincing way. The power of elites – be they exploitative employers, slum landlords, corrupt politicians or swindling bankers – but also the potential power of the majority. A large proportion of the population believe that the system is rigged and the odds are stacked against them, but their feelings are often fatalistic. They don’t believe that anyone, least of all the Labour party, can actually change anything.
Charismatic leadership is a necessary part of the puzzle, but a smaller one than is sometimes suggested. If Labour wants to convince people it is an agent of change, it needs to show as much. Presenting a convincing, exciting vision for the future, but also making a demonstrable difference to people’s lives right now. Opponents mock Corbyn for his involvement in street politics and protest, but it’s the apparent impotence of these gestures that’s the problem. Support for people engaged in local struggles should be provided in ways that are practical and effective. In some cases, this might involve finding ways to fill in and provide services where the state has failed.
The problems of 2017 aren’t identical to those of the 20th century. Things like the gig economy, the London housing bubble and the social care crisis are contemporary issues requiring creative policy responses. However, the basic idea that we can restructure society to make it work better for the majority is the raison d'être of the Labour party – recapturing that spirit of possibility is crucial to turn its fortunes around.