Well. That was a terrible week. Probably the only thing that will unite the party at the moment is a recognition that this election is doing us more harm than good.
The media’s obsession with Jeremy Corbyn together with the social media-driven debate is taking us away from where most people in the UK would want the Labour Party to be. But it also seems to have clouded over the real issues confronting us a party. As a consequence we are discussing the campaign itself rather than having the debate that we need to have on the economy and society and how we transform ourselves back into a potential party of government. And that’s really not good news for whoever wins.
I had hoped that these summer months may have been spent having a real conversation as a party and as a movement with those people who did not support us in May. And understanding not only why we lost but why we lost so very badly. It may be that the shock of the actual result, a government with a small Conservative majority that has already been defeated in Parliament, has blinded us to the hard reality that this was not simply an election lost, but was an historically bad result for the party.
There seems to a sense in some quarters that we will be able to return to government through the back door. The cosy idea that Scotland will come back to a revitalised left wing party that will at the same time be able to advance through English marginals and win back those Welsh socialist citadels like Cardiff North. It’s a quaint and happy illusion. I am told in hushed and excited tones that there are tens of thousands of young voters and Green voters and those mystical disillusioned Labour voters who will drive this socialist movement to power. The really odd thing about this honestly-held view is that it entirely and completely discounts the influence, power and electoral position of the Conservative Party.
This conspiracy of collective denial does not recognise that to win in 2020 we need to persuade many hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of people, to vote Labour rather than Conservative. To win power we need to win Conservative votes and Conservative seats. And a party moving quickly and further to the left is unlikely to become more attractive to those people who didn’t trust us with their family’s homes and jobs and futures three months ago. And a leader who oversees this process is not going to be a more attractive occupant of Downing Street that Ed Miliband. And if you don’t believe it then read the Smith Institute’s report on why Labour lost and your blood will run cold.
However this is not simply a call to the past. To become electorally attractive we need to to do far more than rehash triangulation. Even Blair accepts that New Labour was of its time and place. Which isn’t now. And again it’s some on the left that seem unable to move on.
The aggressive, almost misogynist, bullying of Liz Kendall and the labelling of her and her supporters as “Tories” is appalling and is something that many of us will reflect upon and regret. Alongside this is the ritual recital that there is such a thing as a “true Labour” and this is defined by the endless repetition of tired cliches and unchallenged dogmatic banalities.
So where does that leave us? We need to move away from this Facebook-driven superficiality and root our discussions in the reality of real life facing most people and those communities that we would wish again to represent. We certainly need to be able to appeal to the different nations of the UK, but as well as recognising the new importance of identity in politics we also need to reach beyond it to articulate a vision of economy and society that is at one with our values but which is also rooted in the reality of where we find ourselves today. And the most important starting point is answering those critical questions on the economy.
I find it odd that as a party we seem unable to bring ourselves to celebrate the successes of the Blair Governments. One of the greatest successes was the economic growth that we were able to sustain over much of that time and in doing so we reduced society’s inequality, created jobs and this was the only time in recent history where we actually started reducing poverty in all parts of the UK. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, led an international response to a financial crisis rooted in the real estate market in the United States and which threatened to destroy the entire Western economy. Only two years after this hurricane struck our shores we were seeing the beginnings of recovery across the economy. The Conservatives’ success in both blaming Labour for the crisis and the aftermath is one of the great confident tricks of recent history. It was only surpassed by their ability to create a much worse situation and to blame us for that as well.
Our inability to win this argument is at the root of Conservative success and our continuing failure to articulate an alternative vision of the economy should be at the heart of this leadership election. And unless we argue that we were successful in government, why on earth would anyone trust us with the responsibility of government again? Rather than that we have a social-media election where slogans and easy solutions take the place of hard thinking and hard talking. And we also allow the right-wing to characterise and frame our debates for us.
When this harsh reality is pointed out, all too often we are told that what people want is an anti-austerity party that is true to itself, its history and traditions. But is it really what people want?
I haven’t seen any rush to support a party that regards Greece as a good model for its economic policy. And what is worse is that the people who would bear the brunt of this illusional approach to politics are those same vulnerable people that I went into politics to serve. Greece should be a warning to us and not a route map.
Unless and until we answer these fundamental questions on the economy then we will remain angry bystanders in British politics. I remain astonished that people I know and whose views I respect seem quite comfortable with this notion of opposition. They almost seem quite relieved that we don’t need to take hard and tough decisions and to do government. They forget Nye Bevan’s advice to Jennie Lee at the time of the disaffiliation of the old Independent Labour Party – “You can be pure. Pure and impotent”.
Personally I have no patience with any idea that opposition is either comfortable or a good place to be. And anyone who disagrees should join me for my next advice surgery in Blaenau Gwent and bear witness to the human impact of the careless decisions taken by the new UK Government.
I wrote some weeks ago that I would be supporting Andy Burnham in this election. It is only Andy that has the authority and authenticity to both speak to people who worry about their family’s futures and who is as comfortable speaking of the wider vision for the future of the UK. And he is able to articulate that new argument for the future rather than simply refight old battles using the language of yesterday.
And there are millions of people depending on Labour to get this right. We simply cannot and must not let them down.