These are cruel and unusual times for many Labour MPs. Some of us still recall that even the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. But these memories are fading. There is anger in the Labour party and, without focus and purpose, that anger will become destructive.
Jeremy Corbyn, our leader, has a massive mandate from Labour’s membership and its group of wider supporters. But—and this is hardly a state secret—he and the Parliamentary Labour Party aren’t quite marching to the same tune. That’s as much a problem for the leader as it is for his followers. Both sides need to do a bit of “retuning.” There are a few things we need to do.
Let’s start with asking the right questions, starting with: what is the Labour Party for?
Most MPs will have done school assemblies. When the bright 11-year-old gets up and says “why did you go into politics Miss?”—it’s tempting to say because I wanted to change the world for the better.
But unlike joining a pressure group or a faith-based institution, politics requires making choices, balancing competing interests and accepting that making things happen is just as important as having ideals.
The nature and purpose of the Labour Party is to challenge vested interests and acknowledge that, at times, only collective action will do. It also gives you a chance to point out that government only has the money it can raise by taxes.
MPs need to have more of these fundamental conversations. We’ve done too much searching for the pithy slogan, with few insights and even fewer precise ideas of what to do.
For example, helping the poorest and getting more money into their pockets can be done in two ways: by increasing benefits or by looking at the cost of things which disproportionately affect less well-off people. If Labour were to say “we focus on the cost of housing, energy and food and combine this with working on skills and employability,” then the party would have a coherent narrative.
Only then will those emails from constituents and individual cases of hardship read out by the party’s leader at the despatch box form part of a coherent political narrative. Perhaps more importantly, Jeremy Corbyn’s team needs to talk to people who are instinctively not on their side. Jeremy Corbyn had remarkable success in packing public halls to overflowing, but the audiences were already supporters of his cause. Ideas need to be tested in hostile, critical environments. If the party insulates itself from intellectual challenge, it will get nowhere.
Being against things and questioning the motives of the other side is a necessary part of being an effective opposition—but alone, it’s not sufficient to put you in Downing Street.