Peter Franklin

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

September 20, 2019

Dear Jeremy,

I’m not a leftie. I’ve never voted Labour in my life and, until recently, I was a member of the Conservative Party.

Still, the reason why you should listen to my advice rather than the squabbling socialists surrounding you is this: I’m better placed to understand what your opponents would least like you to do right now. So here goes:

 

1) Don’t panic

I know, it’s been a rough year. You may be on your third Tory leader, but all of those leaders have been Prime Ministers – unlike you. If you want the top job, then evidently you need to be doing something different.

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But don’t despair, not every poll shows a double digit lead for the Tories. According to some polling companies, like ComRes, it’s a lot closer than that. Also don’t forget that your position before the 2017 general election looked even worse – and you turned that one around (though not enough to actually win, of course).

 

2) Your instincts are right on Brexit

Right now, though, there’s no denying you’re in a tight spot. The Tories and the Lib Dems are setting out clear positions on Brexit, but you’re still selling fudge. Still, don’t get me wrong: Labour has to be in the fudge business. You absolutely have to hold on to your support among working class Leavers in the North and among middle class Remainers in the South. That’s your election-winning coalition right there and there’s no alternative to it.

For a while, it looked as though another path was possible: Labour as the ‘Party of Remain’ – an alliance of public sector professionals, students, resentful renters and urbanites of all classes, bolstered by affluent remoaners who’d normally vote Lib Dem or Conservative. In theory, limited losses in Leave heartlands would have been offset by gains in London and breakthroughs in the South East. But it was always a vain hope. Look closely at a People’s Vote march and you can see it for it really is: the larval form of a Lib Dem party conference.

With Liberal Democrats back in play, the Party of Remain strategy doesn’t work for Labour anymore. I’m not sure that even your most anti-Brexit colleagues think they can outflank Jo Swinson. Granted, there is a wide-open space between Revoke and No Deal, but that doesn’t mean the Labour’s Brexit policy – a raging dumpster fire – will be seen as a reasonable compromise. It won’t, it just makes you look ridiculous.

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If, after next week, Labour is still neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems or, for shame, still trailing in third place, you must use the ensuing crisis to your advantage. Tell your colleagues that the almost-Remain positioning has failed and it’s time to make a virtue out of genuine compromise – because right now that’s a vacant niche. In other words, it’s time to reformulate the fudge recipe: commit yourselves to negotiating a ‘Labour Brexit’ (whatever that is) with a second referendum only if all else fails.

The Brexit fundamentalists on either side won’t like it – but you’ve already lost them. Luckily for you, there’s a big constituency for a bring-the-nation-together approach that is currently unrepresented. It’s also the only hope for keeping the Labour coalition together.

 

3) Beware a ‘progressive alliance’

Of course, it might not be long before events overtake all of the above. One possibility is that Boris Johnson will cave, agree to an extension and cling-on as a weakened, humiliated Prime Minister. You can then demand a general election. However, the other possibilities are that the Government gets a deal or that there’s No Deal or that Johnson resigns rather than be dictated to by a Remain Parliament.

In all of these cases (and perhaps others I haven’t considered) you’ll find yourself pressured to join a ‘progressive alliance’ – consisting of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, plus Plaid and the SNP.

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Don’t do it! You’ve got little to gain and a lot to lose from a stitch up. Unlike most of its continental sister-parties, Labour is still a vital force – capable of winning 40% of the vote. Political loyalties run deep in this country, especially in those northern seats you have to hold on to. So, if you’ll forgive the capitalist language, don’t dilute the brand.

Moreover, any stigma still attached to the Lib Dems for their time in bed with the Tories would disappear if you let them climb into bed with you. Of course, tactical voting could help at the next election, but keep it covert – black ops, not photo ops .

The worse case scenario is a ‘government of national unity’. Just imagine being sat around the Cabinet table with Jo Swinson, Ian Blackford, Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke – especially with the latter in the Prime Minister’s chair! Have you gone through the last four years of trench warfare just to become the Ramsay MacDonald of the 21st century?

 

4) Remember why you (nearly) won in 2017

Never forget the 8th June, 2017. I certainly won’t. They said you couldn’t do it – even Owen Jones thought so – but you did (almost). In 2015, Ed Miliband got 30.5% of the vote, you got 40.0%: a remarkable achievement.

Admittedly you had some help. The Lib Dems were still on the floor and Ukip was imploding. Then there were your ‘assets’ inside Tory high command. Just how you guys got so many expert saboteurs into so many high ranking positions I’ll never know. One of them, let’s call her ‘Agent Tracey’, did an especially good job.

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It won’t be so easy next time. Tracey’s gone, the Lib Dems are back and so is Farage. Nevertheless, your basic strategy – to inspire support by offering a meaningful choice – is still valid. After all, Ed Miliband didn’t fail because he was too radical, but because he wasn’t radical enough – you proved that in 2017, despite what the Blairites said.

In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. In every general election since the financial crash, the change candidates have done spectacularly well. In 2010, that was partly obscured by Cameron and Clegg cancelling each other out – still, Cameron made a net gain of 108 seats. In 2015, the change candidates were Nicola Sturgeon north of the border and Nigel Farage south of it. Sturgeon swept the board in Scotland – and Farage increased UKIP’s vote share from 3% to 13%. In 2017, the change candidate was you, Jeremy. It could have been your main opponent, but with maximum muppetry the Tories went with the anti-change message of “strong and stable”.

This time, the ‘change space’ will be heavily contested: no one expects stasis from Boris Johnson; Jo Swinson is the new face; Nigel Farage will be making trouble; and you’re in danger of looking like yesterday’s man. With Labour plotting a middle course on Brexit, you’ll need a fresh, radical agenda on the other big issues.

But simply dusting-off the 2017 manifesto isn’t good enough. The whole commie hipster thing is already moving on. As this year’s Euro-elections showed, the red wave has been swallowed up by a green wave. The young and young-ish voters who swung behind you two years ago may be radical in their politics, but they’re bourgeois to their fingertips. A return to 1970s socialism just won’t do it for them.

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Who will ride the Green wave?

By Peter Franklin

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t promise to spend shed-loads of money. But you need something much smarter than a crude giveaway (especially now the Tories are splashing the cash). Fortunately, one of your economic advisors – Ann Pettifor – has got a plan for a Green New Deal. Apparently, she was into it long before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg made it cool.

It’s just the ticket for your next manifesto – plenty of stuff that can be sold both to your new supporters (like action on climate change and anti-neoliberalism) and to your traditional supporters (green manufacturing jobs and public transport for traffic-choked northern cities).

Furthermore, unlike a free-stuff-for-everyone-and-let’s-nationalise-Facebook agenda, a Labour Green New Deal would allow you to push back on questions of affordability. After all, a higher level of investment in productivity-enhancing projects might pay for itself if it’s done right. Indeed, you could accuse the Tories of running up an ‘infrastructure deficit’ by running down the public realm.

And as for the charge of ‘crowding out’ private sector investment, you only need ask: ‘what private sector investment?’

 

5) Localism not Leninism

A promise to re-nationalise the odd utility won’t do you any harm. But an across-the-board policy of nationalisation? If you pay full price for the companies, voters won’t believe you’ll have the money. If you enforce a discount – i.e. expropriate a private business – you’ll kill the economy. Anyone with any assets will worry they’re next.

In the 21st century, the Left should champion radical localisation not centralisation. Preston council is the exemplar of Labour local governance in this regard – a model of how the public realm can be regenerated in a co-operative, community-led manner.

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By Peter Franklin

Remember what people hate about capitalism right now is not markets and competition, but monopolies and cronyism. They want you to return power to the people, not hoard it for yourself. Ignore your more doctrinaire colleagues, ‘democratic centralism‘ is a fraud and always has been.

 

Anyway, that’s enough unsolicited advice from the class enemy. I genuinely wish you (and your opponents) good luck in the forthcoming general election. It will be brutal.

Best regards,

Peter