29 May 2015

Can the Labour party be saved?


Visit the Scottish Parliament, as I did yesterday to watch Nicola Sturgeon face questions, and it becomes more obvious than ever that the Labour party north of the border is not heading for a revival any time soon. The Nationalists have a majority in the devolved parliament and those on the Labour benches did not look like people who had suffered a temporary reverse. They look like the utterly glum survivors of an extinction event who realise they are next.

Indeed, it is difficult to see where a revival in the party’s fortunes in Scotland could come from. The leadership generation was wiped out in the recent Westminster elections; the membership base is perhaps only a tenth of the size of the SNP’s; trade union members and their leaders are drifting away to the Sturgeon’s Nationalists; and the party struggles to connect either with its old vote in deprived areas or the younger and upwardly mobile denizens of the broadening middle class who tend to work in business rather than the public sector, and who rightly see Scottish Labour as a relic.

In contrast, the tails of the Tartan Tories are up. The Conservative party’s young leader Ruth Davidson is emerging, following an impressive performance in the referendum and the Westminster election, as a highly impressive figure, who may, if she gets the next year right, become the de facto leader of the anti-Nat forces in Scotland. This means that the crazy idea – floated secretly by various Scottish businessmen that an entirely new party run by them, and doomed to failure – will get nowhere. Sensible money, and anti-Nat and pro-market opinion, now has a standard around which to rally in Ruth Davidson.

This leaves Labour in Scotland stranded and it creates a serious problem for the UK leadership, whatever that turns out to be, in London. Since the 1980s Labour has been able to take its dominance north of the border for granted, when the Scots sent figures such as John Smith, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown to Westminster, along with talented second string figures and some complete drongos. The Caledonian leadership class had a disproportionate influence in the party because Scotland – which bucked the trend in the Thatcher era – was a Labour redoubt and a base for resistance. They also assured their English colleagues that Scotland and the SNP should be left to Scottish Labour to handle. It knew what it was doing, it said. Oh no it didn’t, it turns out.

Now, with Scottish Labour kaput, Labour must reinvent itself as an English party, albeit one which still believes, for now, in the continued existence of the United Kingdom. In that respect, David Goodhart, writing in the Guardian, is on the money. When Goodhart says Labour has lost its cultural connection with the people it claims to represent, he is surely right. This shortcoming makes revival an exceedingly tall order, and although it is only three weeks since Labour suffered a humiliating defeat in the general election, it is already apparent that it is struggling to compute the scale of what happened. The shift in employment patterns, the growth of small business and technological change, are all changing the country in ways which seem to have passed much of Labour by.

It was different in 1992, the last time it was said Labour would be out for a generation (and wasn’t). Tony Blair emerged the day after that defeat and made it clear immediately that he understood what had gone wrong. He knew how to communicate and how to set about connecting the party with aspirational voters.

This time can anyone do what Blair did? (I mean winning, not reproducing the calamitous wars and Brown’s banking and credit bubble that left the UK so badly exposed in the financial crisis.)

The Economist’s new Bagehot columnist (Jeremy Cliffe) thinks that the answer may in time be Liz Kendall, the tough and charismatic moderniser who proclaims that Labour needs dramatic change.

“Where others hedge, Ms Kendall and her team describe the recent election as ‘catastrophic’. She urges her party to ditch the “fantasy” that Britons are left-wing. Raised in the middle-class, southern suburb of Watford, she well knows the people Labour must target if it is to win again and exudes the sort of hard-headed practicality that appeals to such voters—mostly avoiding the jargon and circumlocutions that alienate them yet infect the speech of many politicians.”

Kendall has certainly made a terrific start and she has come closest to articulating how the economic and electoral landscape is changing.

But Bagehot’s concern is that she has too little experience and has never been a minister. Neither had David Cameron nor Tony Blair when they became leaders of their parties, it should be pointed out. Her inexperience strikes me as less of a problem than the extreme difficulty she will face convincing Labour members that more private sector involvement in public services is necessary and that high taxes are not going to produce economic dynamism. What she is starting to say about enterprise is very obviously what Labour needs to hear, but it is doubtful whether the depleted ranks of a party going through an existential crisis will want to hear it.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.