How Labour can win again: the three fundamentals it must grasp
Whatever the outcome of the Labour leadership contest, this much we already know. It will not solve Labour’s problem.
When Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper or Jeremy Corby or Liz Kendall stride onto the stage at their party’s special conference on Saturday, 12 September it will mark the end of the process of electing Ed Miliband’s replacement. But it won’t even mark the beginning of the process of understanding how and why Labour lost the 2010 and 2015 general elections.
They say history repeats itself first as a tragedy, then as Labour party political strategy. Or if they don’t, they should.
In 2010 Gordon Brown walked out of Downing Street and straight out of British political life. In 2015 Ed Miliband walked out of Labour’s Brewer’s Green HQ and straight off to Ibiza. In both instances their party was left to simultaneously cope with a catastrophic election defeat, the search for a new leader and the search for an explanation for their electoral failure.
Labour couldn’t cope in 2010, and they’re not coping now. As a method of finding answers to the calamity of May 7, the current series of leadership hustings are simply not fit for purpose.
The candidates are clearly exhausted. Labour activists are still in a state of shock, or denial, or both. The need to pander to a critical mass of Labour activists and supporters is crushing the life out of the contest, and destroying the chance of any meaningful debate. Jeremy Corbyn’s totally artificial inclusion in the process has turned the whole thing into a circus.
To find real answers the Labour party is going to have to look elsewhere. The first place is the two “reviews” being conducted into the defeat.
One is “official”, and being conducted by Margaret Beckett. Unfortunately, it’s so official, it’s quite hard to find anything out about it. There doesn’t appear to be any information about it on the party’s website. There appear to be no published terms of reference, nor timetable, nor structured process for taking evidence. And, crucially, there seems to be no obvious way for ordinary Labour party members to contribute to the process. Think Chilcott without the transparency.
The second review is “unofficial”, and being conducted by former shadow cabinet member Jon Cruddas. It has just secured full funding, and has commissioned a tranch of new, (and one trusts more robust), polling from the Campaign Company run by former Labour advisor Nick Pecorelli. Provisional results are said to include some “very challenging findings”. The Cruddas Review is currently looking at the best ways of opening out to secure input from across the wider Labour movement. But it has not official status. And as a result, uncomfortable conclusions can be more easily brushed aside.
The various Labour think tanks, pressure groups, and affiliated societies are also throwing their shoulders to the wheel.
Last week the Fabian Society published an anonymous essay by a group of former Labour advisors which provided a damning but insightful critique of the failures of the Miliband years, and the challenge facing his successor. According to the shadowy authors “Our leadership election looks set to be cautious and predictable – a phoney war which fails to address the intellectual challenges before us. Failing to address these now will lead Labour further into an electoral cul-de-sac which may take a generation to emerge from”.
But the fact that the debate is now being led from the margins - or the shadows - serves only to underline their point. The future of the Labour party is now being debated off-line.
Over the coming months Labour is going to have to find some way of bringing the argument back on-line. And to do that the Labour party needs to grasp three important fundamentals.
The first is that the analysis of Labour’s defeat cannot end on 12 September, when the new leader is crowned.
In 2010, any rational assessment of why Labour had lost stopped at the moment of Ed Miliband’s election. The blame was conveniently apportioned to Tony Blair, the remedy was to bury New Labour, and the political and electoral strategy for the next five years proceeded accordingly. The Labour party has effectively been in decline since 2001. And the lessons of fifteen years cannot be learnt in 12 weeks.
The second is that the starting point for that analysis has to be that everything the Labour party has done since it last won an election in 2005 has been wrong. Everything.
Under closer examination it will, of course, become clear that not every decision over that period was a flawed one. But for any process of self-evaluation to be meaningful, it must start from a default position of failure, rather than success. No more rubbish about defending a record that the voters have turned their back on. Or manifestoes that have been trashed at the ballot box. Or narratives around “equality” that have been rejected – again – by the electorate. Labour needs an intellectual fire-sale. Everything must go.
The third fundamental the Labour party must grasp is that there are indeed some fundamentals. The rules of politics are called rules for a reason.
If Labour wants a serious debate, it must understand what is not up for debate. A leader who is an effective communicator. A policy platform that has as its foundation a reputation for sound economic competence. A strategy based on maximizing support amongst the electorate, not appealing to a narrow, ideological empathetic sliver of it. If the Labour party wants to win, then these fundamentals can never be up for discussion or debate again.
And the Labour party can win again. The pendulum of politics keeps swinging. All parties eventually falter. It will be the same for the current Conservative government. But the question is how long will it take the pendulum to swing back. Five years? Ten? Twenty? Over the next 12 weeks, that’s what the Labour party is going to have to decide.