Source: Public Policy and the Past
Sunday, 19 January 2020
So what should Labour do now?
The UK’s Labour Party is starting to pick up the pieces after an epic defeat – leaderless, rudderless, and to be frank rather desperate. It must now winnow out the reasons for its historic reverse, and find a way forward that will prevent it ever being hammered in the same way again. We’ve been here before, of course, though history never quite repeats itself: Neil Kinnock said that the 1983 election debacle could ‘never, ever’ happen again when he took up the reins of Labour leadership later that year. Well, it has. And although the lessons must be somewhat different, the search for them is not. Here’s what we’ve taken away from the disaster of 2019: ten things that the party needs to think about, and to solve, before it can ever hold power again.
One. Get better leaders. It was, without doubt, Labour’s top team that turned a possible defeat into a rout. You can’t go into an election led by the most unpopular major party leader in the entirety of British polling history and expect to get anywhere. But Labour members decided to stick with their totem, come what may – fervent, for the most part, in their support for a totally inappropriate Mr Grumpy with more baggage than British Airways. He lied and he lied and he lied, on issues big and small, outside and inside the Labour Party, and indeed at times it was possible to believe that he could not open his mouth without an untruth escaping. We’d make a list, but to be honest it would probably bust all those servers on which we’re relying. By 12 December it appeared that he might turn up in a mask and call himself Ceremy Jorbyn. Well, it caught up with him in the end.
But it wasn’t just Jeremy Corbyn that did Labour in. With a few honourable exceptions, the rest of the Shadow Cabinet was composed of a seriously strange group of oddballs from whom the electorate ran a mile. For some devil-may-care reason known only to themselves, the Labour Party decided to flood the airwaves with footage of Barry Gardiner, a caricature of black-and-white Flash Gordon villains lacking only the moustache-twirling believability of the original, and Richard Burgon – Richard Burgon! – a man who quite frankly makes the Cookie Monster look plausible. Although, on reflection, that’s not really very fair to the Big C-Mon. Rule one: just put out some spokes who aren’t complete whackjobs.
Two. Stop talking complete nonsense. If we put Brexit to one side for a moment – and it is more than fair to say that on this biggest of issues, Labour found itself impaled on a cruel dilemma – then the next most important thing to say about their 2019 ‘campaign’ was that they should shred their manifesto. Before dumping it in an unmarked lime pit. We have to say, dear reader, that we have never seen such an unmitigated laundry list of fantasies hit the printers. According to Labour, they were going to nationalise all the utilities, while unbundling Openreach, nationalising broadband and providing it for free; they were going to take Universal Credit apart and put it back together; they were going to organise a big council house drive while insulating every new home in the country (and, eventually, every single house, however old); and they were going to build a National Education Service and a National Care Service. Not that anyone every really knew what they meant by either of those last ideas. Oh, and expand High Speed Rail. In a country that has only ever managed to build 68 miles of the stuff. All at the same time.
The cost issues were similarly befuddling. Labour said they’d issued a fully funded manifesto, but then said they’d refund women who’d ‘lost’ their pensions at the age of 60 (though they wouldn’t say how) – to the tune of £58bn. They said that their nationalisations would cost nothing because they’d own the assets on the credit side of the ledger, while saying that they’d sweat and degrade those assets by slashing prices. They fibbed that tax rises would be limited only to the top five per cent of earners, while pushing up Capital Gains Tax for anyone with shares or property and cutting the tax allowance for all married couples. They seriously underestimated the cost of abolishing university tuition fees in England. And so on. By the end, voters actually laughed as Labour offered them a free speedboat and a new swimming pool. Maybe pare down the promises next time, guys.
Three. Your policies were not popular. One of the most depressing sights of recent days has been Labour people going around saying ‘our policies were popular’. Repeat these words, please: they were not popular. Yes, if you ask people if they think certain things are a good idea, without attaching costs to them, and without asking them if they believe they will hang together as a whole, people might like to nationalise the trains (it might even be a good idea). But together? With this team? Voters hated it – and with good reason, before you go and start second guessing them. Even post-election, the same pattern has been repeated again and again: if you ask voters whether they want, say, energy nationalisation, or more spending on the National Health Service, they’ll straight away put their hands up and say ‘yes, please’. But if you associate those ideas with Labour, and most of all with Corbyn, they’ll put those hands right back down again. Exactly the same thing happened with Michael Howard in the run-up to the 2005 election, for exactly the same reasons: the Conservatives did not have the credibility to speak out about anything, and they hadn’t put the hard yards in to convince people that they might. The outcome was the same: defeat.
Selling things to the electorate isn’t about publishing a list of things they might like, and it isn’t even about getting out an essay packed with stuff they agree with: it’s about creating an overall narrative, an impression, mood or emotional bond, that they identify with, can believe and which resonates both with them and with people they perceive as being like them. That’s why the impression that Labour politicians and members still think they put a good case to the people – that they ‘deserved’ to win – is so lethal. It threatens, and in Labour’s case has nearly severed, that bond of emotional connectivity and trust. Many voters are still watching, you know. Those that are will now say ‘okay, you didn’t listen to my beliefs and wishes yet again, so I’m going to punish you one more time until you do’.
Four. Take your lessons. Labour people are dazed. Many of them put their heart and soul into a campaign that went so wrong it could be hung up as a picture of wrongness. It’s no wonder that they don’t want to admit fault. That’s natural, and understandable. But they’ve already wasted more than a month refusing to admit the reality of their plight while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been on the beach laughing at them. They’d better start to take their December lessons to heart, and in a big way, before they get labelled for the purposes of the 2024 election – just as David Cameron was able to define them as a bunch of big-spending wasters between 2010 and 2015. This doesn’t mean undertaking any particular intellectual exercise. Labour does too much thinking. Plenty of people could come up with new or amended policy suggestions. What the party doesn’t do enough of is that deep and truth-telling emotional reflection that permits discourse rather than confrontation.
Admit it: you failed. See those people sleeping rough? You failed them. See those people suffering on those hospital trolleys? You failed them. See all those young people losing their European passports? You failed them too. Because you were too self-centred to see yourselves as others saw you. It’s like an alcoholic: before you can start to move forward, you have to be honest with yourselves. You have to realise that you’ve hit rock bottom. Those party members still coming out with that Seven Nation Army chant, or talking about how they got more votes than Tony Blair did in 2005, or moaning about the press? They’re never going to make it into recovery, because they’re not being truthful. Make no mistake about it: there are lots and lots more Labour seats vulnerable to exactly the same type of Tory surge that we’ve just witnessed: on our count, about 40 of them. Act now, and you can save the house: lie to yourself about your true situation, and you’ll be out on the street with your furniture arrayed around you.
Five. Why don’t you cheer up for a change? One thing Boris Johnson has is tiggerish enthusiasm. We can’t stand him, and like as not neither can you – but he exudes (or at least pretends to exude) optimism. Labour doesn’t. It’s always moaning on about how bad things are. About how broken Britain is. About how there’s only 24 hours to ‘save the NHS’. Now there’s a truth there, and a problem. The truth: Britain’s public services are in a total mess. Accident and Emergency admissions are feeding back their worst ever numbers. The public realm, or at least those bits of the public realm cash-starved councils are responsible for, is falling to bits. Taxes are really high (at their highest medium-term level since the 1940s), but no-one has much to show for them. It’s totally fair enough, and in our view correct, for the social democratic party that Labour should be to make that case.
The problem is that most people don’t feel like that, for good reason. Real wages were going up at the end of last year, which they weren’t at the time of the 2017 election. Unemployment is low. Self-reported happiness has been rising, and hasn’t been this high for a very long time – most likely, in fact, since the 1950s. Britain is a relatively open, liberal, cosmopolitan, thoughtful, tolerant place, certainly in comparison to many other European states – and despite Johnson’s successful appeal to some of its more socially conservative and insular instincts. Most British people are living ever more enriched and enriching lives, even as under-35s are finding it harder and harder to start making their own way. They’re going to the football and the theatre, reading more and buying more books; they’re doing their gardening; going running and cycling; watching box sets at home; going to the pub; knitting, jam making, birdwatching and rambling. Just as British people’s very dense and associative lives insulated them psychologically from the Depression of the 1930s, hampering Labour’s progress then, the party’s basic emotive case just makes no sense to most people. They don’t think Britain’s broken. Labour should stop talking like it is.
Six. Get organised. Labour could have saved some of those seats that went blue. Not all of them, by a long way, but by marshalling their ground forces more efficiently, and actually listening to experienced campaigners, they could have held on to Bury North, for instance, and maybe a dozen or more others. Instead, they went all out for a ’90 per cent strategy’, attacking across a broad front in a hopeless and doomed full-on assault. ‘Forget the polls’, they said: ‘we know better’. ‘We’re going to go after every seat in the country’. Yeah, well. Trying to win Wycombe and Altrincham which, yes, one day might fall to Labour… didn’t work out. 12 December 2019 wasn’t that day, as anyone who can read a map and some charts could have told you beforehand. Labour apparatchik Karie Murphy, however – at whose door some of the blame for the disasters of the last few years must rest – knew better. And since she was in charge of Labour’s campaign, that was that. The Tory majority ballooned out to eighty, when it could have been cut pretty simply to maybe fifty or sixty. That might prove to be important if Johnson’s Brexit deals ever run into trouble.
More illuminating is the question of what Murphy was doing running an election campaign in the first place. Since she has absolutely no qualifications to be doing so, what on Earth was going on? One, she is close to Len McCluskey, Labour’s number one power broker. Two, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell insisted on pushing her (and most of her team) out of Corbyn’s office back in the autumn. McDonnell saw her as an obstacle to Labour’s new policy on a second referendum, but couldn’t get rid of her entirely. So Labour HQ at Southside was lumbered with her, to predictable effect. In the end, Corbynism became such an insular and nepotistic phenomenon, of just a handful of mates who’d known each other for decades, that most of the data and analytics team were ignored. They’ve just survived an attempt by Murphy and General Secretary Jennie Formby to abolish them altogether. Here’s a hint: don’t do that. Hire more data people. It’s the amateurs you need shot of.
Seven. Clean up your toxic culture. Voters can see inside parties. They do read the papers and search the web, you know. They can read. They often draw lessons from how parties are run, as a way of imagining how they might run the country if they get into Downing Street. And what they saw when they looked at Labour was and is not pretty at all. Labour has quite simply become an absolute sink of anger, hatred, rage and racism. We must make clear at this point that the vast majority of members are not like that at all. Most of them are Soft Left devotees of a fairer society and a bit more socialism. They’re probably about to vote for Keir Starmer (above) as leader. They’d have voted for Andy Burnham in 2015 if Corbyn hadn’t made the ballot. They like Sadiq Khan. But a minority of them have completely lost the plot. You can scroll through plenty of Corbynite Facebook groups if you want to see what we mean. Apparently all the leadership contenders this time are ‘Zionist stooges’ for accepting the Board of Deputy’s ten-point plan for ridding the party of antisemitism, a racist assertion which rather makes the Board’s point for it.
The problem goes wider than antisemitism (though that affliction is by far the most poisonous of Labour’s problems). Labour has been turning a blind eye to a culture of bullying, abuse and sexual assault for a long time. It’s been giving loads of leftie men – and of course the vast majority of the offenders are men – a pass on their nasty old ways while pretending to be all trendy about workplace rights, sex, gender and women’s bodies. In with the clique? Why, sir, why don’t you have a free pass. Ideological enemy? Out on your ear. It was ever thus of course in Westminster’s many corridors, and there is no doubt that other parties have similar problems, but when placed alongside Labour’s deep problem with online abuse, the kickback against whistleblowing and denialism reached across from the party’s antisemitism crisis and spread out across the machinery’s upper echelons. Labour’s next leader must crack down – hard. On the rash of antisemitism that is disfiguring the British Left wherever you look, but also on the wider atmosphere of intolerance. If they do nothing, just on this one point, they’ll lose yet again, and what’s more they’ll deserve to lose.
Eight. You’re not better than other people. One of the things that really gets up voters’ noses is that Labour members seem to think that they’re a cut above. It’s taken for granted that Labour’s policies, and even more so its ideas, are better and on principle more moral than others – as if a bigger and more powerful state is per se more likely to lead to the better life. That might be the case, and in our view given Britain’s dilapidated infrastructure it is very likely so, but you don’t have to sound so smug about it. Firstly because it makes you look like you’re walking round with your noses in the air, and secondly because it makes you look ridiculous whenever you try to do some real politics. The claim to be all principle, and no pragmatism, has been made much worse by Corbynism and all the years in opposition, but it’s always been there – the idea that the further Left you go, the more self-denying and genuinely caring you are.
This is nonsense. Politics is about choice. Every leader, everywhere, must choose between ends and means, and indeed between ends and between means. It is in fact more moral to get through to the end of the day without disaster – and without too many people getting hurt – than it is to blow up a public policy catastrophe because you meant it and you thought you were right. So you don’t ‘triangulate’ or compromise, is that it? You triangulated on the biggest issue of the decade, namely Brexit. You triangulated on the ultimate question, talking out of both sides of your mouth about Trident. You triangulated on the Union between England and Scotland. You triangulated on Universal Credit and the benefits cap. You triangulated on immigration. You triangulated on private schools. All well and good, because that’s politics, but don’t come out and tell the voters that you’ve got some hotline to what’s good and right. In the end, you know all those times you said that you hated everybody else – especially those evil Tories? Well, the joke’s on you, because you got a third of the votes on a 67 per cent turnout. Nearly half Labour’s Remain voters said they would have voted for another and more pro-European party if they were best placed to win. So around 13 or 14 per cent of the electorate loved what you were selling. Maybe it’s not the Tories that everybody hates.
Nine. Enough of the Live Action Role Playing. Labour’s present leadership election has witnessed an outbreak of ‘prolier than thou’ game-playing that really has to be seen to be believed. Apparently, you have to have grown up in a paper bag if you want to lead Britain. This is all very well, and like other entries in this ten-point list contains a valid truth: you are only really likely to understand what poverty really feels like – truly, deeply – if you’ve lived through it. But Labour are pushing this far too far when they’re primarily a middle-class party made up of older graduates who live in the South (the single biggest group are Londoners) and who’ve paid off their mortgages – a flaw that feeds into policy, as well as presentation. The language in which laudable appeals to ‘workers’ control’ and a big increase in trade unions’ power was couched would have had a slightly ludicrous whiff about them in the 1990s, let alone the 2020s.
The ‘prolier than thou’ crowd often make Labour look absurd. No-one else says ‘comrade’. No-one else poses with clenched fists. Very few Britons talk about ‘socialism’. Especially not when many of the adherents of this politics of the Durham Miners’ gala had fairly comfortable upbringings which in fact allowed them to get a foothold in the Labour Party in the first place (yes, we’re talking about you, Laura Pidcock). Labour is in danger of becoming, not a political party, but a beleaguered subculture with a language and a self-referential outlook all its own. Remember that rash of Corbynite wordplay, in which everyone was a ‘melt’ or a ‘slug’ who had to be ‘salted’? No-one took that seriously, even at the time, but Britain’s Left is at serious risk of spinning off into its own lexicography: of ‘neoliberalism’ not cuts, ‘resistance’ not power, ‘class’ and not culture. Get off Twitter, leave your meetings and stop going to conferences. Just meet some workaday voters, like most MPs have to – explaining, of course, their widespread horror at what’s been going on.
Ten. Stop trashing your record. The maiden speech made by Coventry South’s new Member of Parliament certainly made a splash. In it, Zarah Sultana gave in part a good account of her generation’s worries: the concentration of economic power, the threat of insecure work, the climate crisis. But there was something else there, too, which won’t and can’t help Labour: the characterisation of the last forty years in British public life as ‘Thatcherism’. Now it might have escaped your notice, but Labour was in office and in power as well for thirteen years between 1997 and 2010. They had a big majority. The Blair and Brown governments were hyperactive on the domestic stage. Some of their policies leaned to the Right by present-day Labour standards – on crime and justice, for instance, although Labour yet again tried to have its cake and eat it in 2019 when it said it would recruit many more police officers.
But they also led radical and reforming governments that, and let’s check our notes, brought in a big windfall levy on the utilities to pay for an attack on youth joblessness, halved child poverty, massively increased Child Benefit, legislated for the National Minimum Wage and the Right to Roam that the Left had been fighting for since the beginning of the twentieth century, secured devolution across the United Kingdom and peace in Northern Ireland, practically abolished cancer treating waiting lists, virtually eliminated rough sleeping… and so on. Voters know this. Once again, they are not stupid. They know humbug when they hear it. And they’re not going to vote Labour while you tell them both that the evidence of their own eyes is wrong, and that the Coalition and Tory governments that have gutted many public services are no different to others. Why should they? It’s fine and right to say that Labour in office got plenty of things wrong, and that Labour today would do things very differently: slagging your own party off? Not so much.
So there are ten ways we’d recommend that Labour change. Elect and appoint more plausible leaders. Stop promising everything to everyone. Admit that you got it wrong, and allow yourself a truly honest and affecting self-examination. Speak optimistically. Get yourselves straight. Stop it with the hate and the jibes. Stop walking around like you’re the big I am. Break out of your bubble and take credit, not brickbats, for your achievements. Stuff like that. If this sounds like Politics 101, it is – it amounts to just saying ‘sort yourselves out’. It’s a mark of how far Labour has fallen that most of this needs to be said at all.
Labour’s malaise is deep-seated. It is a party that is very unsure what it stands for, and even whether it wants to make its case in the media at all. It deploys outriders when it could put out MPs – asteroid mining enthusiast and boor Aaron Bastani, technically-challenged ‘economist’ Grace Blakeley, social media sensation and flat-track bully Owen Jones, ultra-partisan Lexiteer Lara McNeill. Every time they appear on TV, Labour loses votes. It’s as simple as that. The party could put out Lou Haigh, or Rachel Reeves, or Yvette Cooper, or even Angela Rayner. Every time they appear, from most wings of the party by the way, Labour probably gains votes – votes they desperately need, as they continue to go backwards and away from power.
But does it have the will to get out there and fight, or will it just continue to huddle together around the camp fires of its own comfort, holed up in cities and university towns when it could be getting out into the wider country and winning arguments? Can it start to make progress measured against the tough yardsticks above? The voters as a whole – who desperately need a functioning Opposition, let alone an alternative government – must really hope that it does. If it doesn’t, very many long years in the wilderness lie ahead.
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