Keir Hardie knew trade could kill jobs—but demanded social reform, not protection ©Hulton-Deutsche Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Labour: By-election jitters reflect a deeper loss of the party's historic plot

The constitutional duty is not merely to oppose, but to Oppose. This, the party is not doing
February 14, 2017

Dear Labour,

Politics is about telling stories to voters which explain their everyday experiences. I’d like to talk to you about what your current story says—and what it doesn’t.

Your malaise is warping the latest chapter in the long story of British politics. The green benches of the Commons run parallel, facing each other down both sides of the chamber, because MPs originally met in a chapel with that layout. In architecture, form is supposed to follow function; but the form of parliament has shaped its functioning for centuries. Our system is binary. There is no space for a multiplicity of alternatives, just one opposition—to be precise, Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. The constitutional duty is not merely to oppose, but to Oppose. This you are not doing.

Ask thoughtful Tory MPs and they will freely admit—as one said to me recently with a mix of glee and concern flickering across his face: “We are getting away with all sorts and nobody’s watching.” The press could do better, but only you—the Opposition—are, or should be, on the spot in every debate, scrutinising every last action of the government. It’s tough being relevant out of power, but it’s impossible without remorseless use of the weapons you’ve got—awkward questions, forensic watchfulness and scorn. Not deploying these effectively is what gives you a relevance problem.

You also have a consistency problem and a communications problem. The two are linked: there is a reason why David Cameron and George Osborne said the words “long-term economic plan” over and over until we in Westminster were sick of hearing it: they knew that was the only way to cut through to the vast majority of voters who don’t watch Prime Minister’s Questions. Whatever Labour wants its story to be, it simply won’t register until it understands this. Jeremy Corbyn’s New Year flip-flopping about what sort of executive pay cap he was or wasn’t proposing was typical. Now, I appreciate that Corbyn believes he has a clear story to tell: anti-austerity at home, anti-imperialism abroad. But these abstractions have only the haziest links to most people’s daily lives. The activists might like the messages, but the crucial voters you need to win won’t even hear it.

So to policy—which is sometimes imagined to be about think tanks and costed plans, but is really about stories too. You are not telling a story to the electorate when you adopt the fundamentals of another party’s worldview, and claim to disown your past. That simply gives a green light to your supporters to vote for the competing party with which they’re already flirting. Yes I’m talking about immigration and Ukip. Your job, Labour, is not—as some of your MPs now seem to think—to tell voters that Ukip were right about immigration being far too high. Your job is to look at what people are experiencing in their lives—stagnant wages, a lack of opportunity, and public services visibly struggling with a lack of resources—and address them without distorting economic reality. That reality is that immigration is indispensable to an ageing society with a social care crisis. “But voters are concerned,” I hear you cry. Yes, because Ukip has told the most effective political story of the past two decades and transformed our politics by doing so.

But it remains the politician’s duty to tell the truth. If some people are not experiencing the benefits of immigration then you need to explain why that is. The policy will flow naturally from the overarching explanation that you give. The first step, however, is to have your fundamental analysis in place—and it is clear that you don’t. If you end up with a story that says Ukip was right all along, then what is your purpose in remaining in business? Most people are more willing to listen to arguments that challenge them than they are given credit for. Don’t be afraid of the electorate, Labour. As things stand, you proclaim you share its “concerns,” while talking ever more to yourself. This mix has driven you to the point where there is real anxiety about two by-elections in your own seats, contests that ought to be a breeze in opposition.

An authentic story will evolve from your history. Labour’s relationship with openness has at times been anguished, but free trade was part of your founding faith. In 1906—the year the Parliamentary Labour Party was formed—your manifesto said: “Protection, as experience shows, is no remedy for poverty and unemployment. It serves to keep you from dealing with the land, housing, old age, and other social problems!” Its authors knew that they had to tell some hard economic truths.

You, too, need to find a story in which you demonstrably believe. After all, voters can sniff out a fake. But how can a divided party agree a new narrative? One precedent might be the late 1980s renewal that led to New Labour—but its stories have not endured. There was too little ideological work, and too much dressing up of positions dictated by the polls. You have, arguably, not had a serious story in decades. Your current decline is about more than shambling Westminster performances and the latest resignations: it is about structural decay over decades. The influx of new members is not the great redemption, because—as the referendum exposed—it is not translating into a winning ground game. But there is hope. As the columnist Philip Collins argues, Momentum could be “Labour’s unlikely saviour”—community activism is a strong strand in your history, and one of the few possibilities for rebuilding. Root yourselves back in local communities—making noise, getting things done—and you could find your story begins to write itself.

Oh and one other thing, Labour—you are the Official Opposition. Don’t forget the day job as an ever-harder Brexit looms that threatens not only your own fate, but also our country’s place in the world. Labour’s finest hour—the 1945 landslide—grew out of its opposition to Tory appeasement in the 1930s, which brought the party immense moral stature and eventually an invitation to join Churchill’s wartime government. So—as Tory MP Leo Amery shouted in 1939—Labour, “Speak for England!”