21 January 2020

The Labour Party still doesn’t get it


The UK Labour Party is still reeling from its worst defeat since 1935. Although its overall share of the vote has recently been worse (in 2010 and 2015), it has now lost scores of seats that have been Labour for generations. It seems in shock, unable to react, for one very good reason – it has yet to be honest with itself.

The crisis in which Labour finds itself will not be solved by more thinking. Increasing the output of reports on ‘what went wrong’, or issuing more analytical accounts of Labour’s declining relevance, will only scratch the surface. What is required instead is a more thoroughgoing emotional audit – of how the party is seen by many (now ex-) Labour voters; of its fundamental retreat both from its old heartlands and reality; of its own values and even language.

Anything less than that root-and-branch reassessment is unlikely to bring Labour back into contention in seats that they must win to have much hope of getting back into anything like power, and that they held as recently as 2010, such as South Swindon, Reading West, or Gloucester.

The most basic change must be to admit failure. All those patients waiting for treatment in A&E, or languishing on hospital trolleys in the corridor? All those people sleeping rough on the pavements? All those young people who wanted to hold onto their European Union passports? Labour failed them – partly out of genuine idealism, but also out of a failure to look in the mirror.

Labour’s leaders were deeply unpopular in the country, a fact not limited to Jeremy Corbyn as the most unpopular leader of the Opposition since records began. Much of the Shadow Cabinet also left voters aghast at their lack of grace and fleet-footedness. Sending candidates such as Richard Burgon, Barry Gardiner and Ian Lavery out on the airwaves or round the country was not so much brave as foolhardy.

The party’s manifesto also turned into a huge problem, as Labour’s campaign degenerated into a farcical list of promises that voters struggled to believe. It was almost like a gameshow: win a speedboat! Win a new swimming pool! Win a new house! Middle-class voters were offered a veritable smorgasbord of goodies: free tuition fees for their children; free social care for their elderly parents; free hospital parking; cheaper train tickets; free prescriptions; indeed tens of billions of pounds of cash that overall looked less like socialism and more like bribes for the better off.

This wasn’t just a question of money – though the pledge of a completely-unfunded £58bn to pay 60-something women for the pensions that Labour says they were ‘owed’ helped shred any remaining credibility. No, it was also a question of organisational capacity. In a country grown ever more suspicious of politicians in recent years, saying that you’re going to nationalise all the utilities, and scrap Universal Credit, and provide free broadband, and insulate all new housing, and build more high-speed rail, just didn’t add up for most voters.

Then there was the miserabilism. For Labour, everything about Britain is going wrong. There’s a truth hidden in that, which is that public services are now in a dire state. If you have to rely on anything at all from local government, from buses to public toilets through to social care, you’re in trouble. But the problem for Labour is that, while voters agree that the public realm as a whole is in crisis, they do not feel that about their own lives. The mood does not resonate. The lines do not land.

Self-reported happiness has been rising in recent years, not just because inflation and unemployment are very low by historical standards – though they are – but because most Britons’ lives go on getting better and better and better. They’re out there downloading the box sets and playing on games consoles, going to the football, going running, rambling and jetting off. They don’t think Britain is broken. That makes things worse for all those many people whose lives have been getting worse for a long time – and real wages have stagnated for over a decade – but it means politicians have to speak in many colours and layers. Britain isn’t broken. Labour shouldn’t speak as if it is.

Labour haven’t really addressed any of this yet, even in the face of a huge defeat. Some activists still sing that Seven Nation Army song; some of them talk about becoming a ‘social movement’; Corbyn as their just-about-still-leader has spoken of becoming the ‘resistance’ to Tory rule. For too many left media outlets and bloviating outriders, everyone hates the Tories, and those voters who don’t are grinding the faces of the poor. When you’ve just achieved less than a third of the vote on a 67% turnout, maybe it’s you that people don’t like much – or trust to help those in need. Just a thought.

None of the Left’s imaginative reaction to the disaster of December 2019 has been anything like good enough. Many of its new MPs have used their maiden speeches to dig themselves in deeper and not build outwards – to the dismay of their colleagues, and the delight of the Tories opposite. Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South who’s just seen her party’s majority there reduced from 7,947 to 401, has risen from the Commons benches to denounce ‘forty years of Thatcherism’ – as if all the achievements of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in power were as nothing. Voters know that isn’t true, whatever their views of those two men as leaders: and they won’t be returning to a party that dislikes itself and its own record with such aplomb.

If you don’t seek to win power soon, and use it for the people you were founded to serve, you’re nothing but a set of Direct Debits and a WhatsApp group. Labour is hiding out in its new fortresses – big cities, particularly London, and university towns – and refusing to go out into the wider country where the heavy lifting of any new majority will have to be done. The party is threatening to degenerate into an angry subculture of Very Online Activists who do more tweeting and bullying than changing – with its own language, norms and codes that remain very distant from most voters.

Many of Labour’s problems are probably soluble if they get really rigorous. A new leader and Shadow Cabinet that are simply more plausible, and who do not necessarily transform policies but clean up Labour’s toxic culture of ‘anti-Zionism’, misogyny and distrust might do wonders. Just looking like they know what they’re doing, and wearing the occasional smile rather than a scowl, might work a treat.

Beyond that, Labour can and must adopt a more focused and believable policy offer, make its peace with its recent past under Blair and Brown, and start to look at ease with the world as it is, rather than how they imagine it should be. There is no reason at all to think that the party cannot govern if they do change, at least as a minority; but if they keep going like this, in the mire and in denial, long years in the wilderness lie ahead.

A longer version of this article can be found on Glen O’Hara’s blog

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Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a number of books including 'From Dreams to Disillusionment: Economic and Social Planning in 1960s Britain' and 'The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain'.