Labour has five years to reflect on why it lost but it won’t stand a chance in 2024 unless it picks a credible leader nowby Jonathan Lis / January 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
Jeremy Corbyn has announced his resignation, and five candidates have won the backing of fellow MPs and MEPs: Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry. They will now begin the process of securing support from affiliated bodies, trade unions and constituency parties before the voting begins next month. The result will be announced on 4th April.
And yet none of it will matter if the candidates do not face truths about why the party has lost so often. Truths about the necessity of compromise in order to win power. Truths about who Labour exists to serve.
This leadership election is in some ways even more important than the 2015 ballot which elevated Corbyn to power. It could spell the difference between a return to Labour government in five years and a further generation under absolute Conservative rule. Still reeling from its worst defeat in 85 years, to follow three previous losses, Labour is deciding whether to seek the comfort of what it already knows or confront the realities it may not want to hear.
The first task is perhaps the hardest: to accept why the party lost. There are long-term and short-term reasons, and one inescapable hard truth. The long-term reason is that the “red wall” seats in the midlands and north of England have been drifting away from a seemingly metropolitan-focused Labour Party for some years. Scottish voters, meanwhile, have never felt more alienated from what increasingly feels like an English party unwilling to fight Scotland’s corner. There is a counter-drift—middle-class and densely populated urban seats in England which 30 years ago voted Conservative and now return Labour MPs with huge majorities—but it is nowhere near substantial enough to balance the exodus elsewhere.
The short-term reasons are more fiercely contested—above all, Brexit. Everyone can agree that the Brexit policy went down badly on the doorstep. The disagreement begins when assessing how things could have been done differently. The Corbynite, referendum-sceptic wing of the party has been quick to blame the referendum policy for defeat. That is false. Labour was never going to out-Brexit the Conservative or Brexit parties. The Leavers who abandoned the party did so over the customs union, long before the people’s vote policy. In May’s European elections Labour polled under 25 per cent. If the party had not adopted a referendum position for the general election, it would have haemorrhaged support from Remainers and still not won back its Leavers. Arguably the party did not go far enough, and allowed the Liberal Democrats to claim Remainers who would have opted for Labour if its Remain stance had been unequivocal.
The last big factor is the most contentious of all: Jeremy Corbyn. There seems, in certain quarters, a determination not simply to refuse to own the defeat, but almost to deny it even took place. Brexit, Remainers, the media, the electorate itself: everything and everyone, it seems, was responsible for the defeat except Corbyn himself.
Nobody is asking the leadership candidates to trash Corbyn—just to tell the truth. They need to accept what everyone who canvassed for Labour reported: he was the first thing people mentioned on the doorstep and the greatest obstacle to Labour’s success. Some of that might have related to his perceived slipperiness over Brexit. Some of it was about his historical baggage, and his calamitous handling of the anti-semitism scandal. But it all boiled down to something essential: the British people did not want him. Certainly, the media was extremely hostile—but it is not going anywhere and will oppose almost any Labour leader. If we simply blame the media for the defeat then there is no point contesting any election again.
Now is the time not for purism but pragmatism. In the last election Labour turned its manifesto up to 11. It looked incredible because it was. The party needs to focus around a deliverable set of objectives. It needs to demonstrate a break both with its Corbynite and Blairite pasts. There is, or should be, nothing shameful—or worse, “centrist”—in the desire to win. A government which makes compromises and wins will help more people than an opposition which makes none at all and loses. Moral victory is not enough. The Labour party exists to serve the British people. We cannot show more interest in our own factions than in their livelihoods.
The focus on who best appeals to the Labour membership is rooted in the same self-indulgence that saw victory for Iain Duncan Smith over Ken Clarke in the 2001 Tory leadership election, with entirely predictable results. The question for Labour supporters now is not who appeals to them, but who may appeal to other people. Specifically, someone who reaches out to Conservative, Lib Dem and SNP voters at the same time as unifying the party’s different wings. If we think Tory voters are beyond the pale, we will deserve to lose.
This is not a matter of abandoning principles. Quite the opposite: Labour cannot win by offering an ersatz version of other parties. If voters want a red, white and blue Brexit which bashes immigrants, they will go elsewhere. Labour can win by being Labour, just as it has repeatedly in the last 75 years.
Currently British politics is facing a most peculiar paradox. A party which exists to fight for the rich is now mopping up support from ex-miners, while the party that exists to represent workers must now depend for its survival on prosperous city-dwellers. The vexed question of who Labour is for will last for many years to come. But the soul-searching needs to begin now—and it needs to risk upsetting people who may not like the answers. All wings of the party must participate. All must compromise.
Right now Labour feels discomfort. It needs to. Suffering the worst defeat since 1935 is uncomfortable. It has some time to prepare for the next election, but almost no time at all to decide that election’s most important element. The next leader will be chosen in a matter of weeks. After that, it may already be too late.