23 June 2020

Labour has its post-mortem – but where is the plan for revival?

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After every disaster, the aftermath – first the disbelief, then the mourning, then the inquest, then the rebuilding. The Labour Party has now moved from Stage Two of that process to Stage Three: it has begun to recover from numbness and regret: it is now moving on, to ask itself where everything fell apart.

That’s the brief of Labour Together, a ginger group founded to allow all sorts of Labour people to talk to each other – an aim, one might say, that tells you just how bitter things became over the last three or four years.

They’ve now published their Election Review, identifying four reasons why Labour lost so badly back in December: the unpopularity of the party’s leadership; Brexit divisions among its past electorate; a muddled manifesto; and long-term cultural shifts against Labour in ‘their’ heartlands.

One widespread reaction is dismissive sarcasm. Yes, the sun still rises in the east. Bears still defecate in areas chock full of trees. Two of the lead Commissioners, Ed Miliband and Lucy Powell, were central to Labour’s disaster in 2015. They are not the most credible figures if we are talking about electoral recommendations. 

It would still be quite wrong to attack most of the review. A lot of professional work has clearly gone into the report. A large-scale questionnaire has been sent out to party members at the grassroots, asking them what they think went wrong.

The polling firm Datapraxis has been asked to interrogate data from across the country: the statistical work presented here, no doubt marshalled by YouGov pollster Marcus Roberts who served as one of the Commissioners, is serious and sober.

The Commissioners genuinely do come from most wings of the modern Labour Party.  A serious attempt has been made to look at the long-term and the short, the structural and the ephemeral, the country and the party. This is work of far, far higher quality than anything official party organs could have managed in Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader.

There is absolutely no doubt that this review does identify most of the key problems that led to Labour’s collapse. The party has gone into not one, but four, general elections led by an unpopular figurehead. Only when the Conservatives replaced William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard with David Cameron, and Cameron overtook Gordon Brown as ‘most capable Prime Minister’ in 2008 and 2009, did the Conservatives have a real shot at returning to power.

It is also totally clear that Brexit became a real problem for Labour. Its torturous progress towards renegotiation and referendum was painful to watch, and full of missteps. It was the acme of what many people (simplistically) imagine as the party’s identity crisis: does it turn towards the young, urban, multicultural and better educated areas it currently represents, or stick at trying to win over Leave-orientated areas of England and Wales?

The manifesto played a key role here, in deepening incipient doubts about Labour’s credibility and honesty. It promised everything to everyone, everywhere – and was then superseded when Labour promised to dole out even more money during the campaign.

Individually popular policies, for instance rail nationalisation or more spending on public services, were drowned out by a blizzard of noise intended to serve as Good News – which somehow became Bad News.

Last and perhaps most controversially, Labour has indeed been drifting away from modes of speaking, feeling and believing in many working-class communities. No-one with family in those communities, or even a passing familiarity with seats such as Birmingham Northfield or Kingswood on the edge of Bristol, can fail to see that.

All that said, the impression I took away from the Commissioners’ work was an overall fuzziness. Which of these factors was the most important, when, where and how? How do they fit together one with another? What, exactly, were the links between Brexit and Labour’s cultural drift away from those it was founded to serve? 

Yes, Labour lost a far greater proportion of its Leave than Remain voters in 2019, but that was partly because it had far fewer Leave voters to begin with. Also beyond doubt is the fact that, had Labour not conceded on a referendum with a Remain option before overtaken by an election, the Liberal Democrats and Greens could have mounted a far more serious challenge to them than they managed in the end. 

It is all very well for discredited figures such as ex-party Chair Ian Lavery to blame a mildly pro-Remain stance for Labour’s nosedive in the Midlands and North of England: he does not consider the alternative, which could easily have been a far greater defeat prompted by the defection of less tribally loyal young and liberal voters across the whole country.

Nor is the report really truthful with itself about Labour’s toxicity. Time and again, Labour’s internal mess is evoked, but with a real lack of sharpness: the poison cannot possibly be drained without identifying exactly where it has come from. There is a deeply revealing passage about so-called ‘outrider’ accounts on social media that notes only that they were talking to themselves – not that some of them became a locus of division, hatred and in some cases racism that threatened the party’s core values.

These Commissioners could also stay united because they were looking backwards. I very much doubt that they will say the same things when they begin to look forwards. In this respect, the Election Review involves little analysis of politics itself, that process of opting for more and less, one direction or the other. 

How fast will any growth strategy have to be to achieve escape velocity from the Covid-19 crisis? What should the top rate of Income Tax be? Exactly which industries should be taken into public ownership? How hard will Labour fight to keep Scotland, and perhaps even Northern Ireland, inside the United Kingdom? How close should Britain stay to the European Union? Should there be a trade deal with the United States?

These are the questions this Parliament will have to face, and they will be central to whether Labour has a chance in 2024. It is by no means clear how the insights in this report map onto any of these choices. 

That is, to some extent, inevitable. Who really wants to look at how many people hate them, and how deeply? To what extent can any group of politicians condemn the leadership cadre that has just vacated the stage, even if they wanted to? How much Corbynism can be dumped without losing so many of the new members and so much of the renewed enthusiasm of the last few years? The answer must be: not many, not a lot and not all that much. At least, not yet. 

It this caution that makes Labour Together’s report so emblematic of emergent Starmerism itself: thoughtful, professional, unifying on the Left, but dangerously bloodless and perhaps vacillating if it doesn’t move on. Starmer will have to work hard on a second stage of analysis – what do we actually do now? – if some of his first good impression is not to drain away.

This review captures Labour in a particular moment, like those mosquitos encased in amber from Jurassic Park: it has begun to accept what has happened, but does not yet have a particularly convincing way out. That is to be expected. But they will need a map and compass much more quickly than they think.

Labour’s leader in the mid-1990s, John Smith, established himself as a forceful, credible, perhaps even inevitable Prime Minister over the last months of 1992, and through 1993: he did that not only because the Conservatives were falling to bits in office, but because he seemed to exhibit both an air of competence and a strong sense of moral conviction. 

The party is now recovering the former. It is beginning to do a businesslike job of listing why its image has been chucked into the gutter. But how did that horrible zig-zag of fractures with the electorate open up in the first place? How do the cracks and potholes connect to one another? What are their relative importance? And, most vitally, how can the landscape be changed? It is far from obvious that this review will lead to answers. Until those become apparent, Labour will remain trapped in the amber.

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Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.