After the catastrophe of 12 December 2019, the Labour party — my party — faces the most titanic of struggles to re-establish itself as a serious political force. It doesn’t so much stand at a crossroads as teeter on a precipice, and the decisions it takes over the coming weeks will potentially define its entire future. Things are that critical.
The leadership campaign has, so far, been thoroughly uninspiring. The only candidate who has demonstrated any sign of comprehending the scale of the mountain to be climbed, and what it might take to reach the summit, is Lisa Nandy — but, even then, one suspects it doesn’t come from gut. On the issue that, beyond all others, caused the meltdown in the Labour heartlands — Brexit — none of the contenders could claim with sincerity to have placed themselves unequivocally on the side of the 52%.
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The most pressing question now is whether the party wishes ever to govern again. I genuinely fear that some activists — particularly those on the dogmatic, infantile far-Left — would be willing to see Labour relegated to being a party of permanent protest. That is, after all, where many of them have spent their lives and is the type of politics with which they are most comfortable.
If, however, it is serious about winning power in the future, Labour must elevate above everything the task of reconnecting with the millions of working-class voters who have abandoned it. These people are the party’s very reason for existing; without them it is nothing.
An attitude of “No compromise with the electorate” would consign Labour to irrelevance. So would attempts to pass off December’s annihilation with excuses about the hostility of the media or the “false consciousness” of workers. We were hammered. And we were hammered because our appeal was far too narrow. We were seen, justifiably, as a party for students, social activists and middle-class liberals in the cities. We had too little to say to everyday folk in post-industrial, small-town and suburban Britain. We ceased to be the “people’s party” and became instead the party of Twitter.
The first step to recovery is accepting this painful reality. Then we need to embark on a journey of transformation. The working-class in the provinces will listen to us again only when we start speaking their language. That’s why a “one more heave” strategy would be fatal. It would make Labour that arrogant English tourist who, when faced with a foreign shop assistant who doesn’t understand him, thinks the solution is to shout a bit louder.
Corbynism was right to demand the end of austerity and articulate an economic alternative to neoliberalism — one built around government intervention, redistribution, investment, public ownership of key industries and services, and tackling regional inequality and boardroom excesses. That approach remains popular, and there is no need for Labour to shift off that ground. But, as the election showed, it isn’t just “the economy, stupid”. Voters want a bit of cultural security, too, and here they saw that Labour had nothing to offer them.
That’s why there needs to be a sharp recalibration of emphasis in Labour priorities. There is, of course, a place for debate about climate change, homelessness, gender identity, universal credit, multiculturalism, and LGBT and migrant rights. But Labour’s disproportionate focus on these things has given voters the impression they are all the party cares about.
For the next five years, Labour must dedicate itself to talking incessantly about issues that hit working-class voters in the solar plexus: certainly the economy, but also work, family, community, law and order, immigration, the nation and suchlike. These are not ‘Tory issues’. These are issues important to voters across the political spectrum, and Labour cannot afford to absent itself from the debate any longer.
But simply to talk about these things wouldn’t be enough. The message needs to be right. And, once again, that would mean a seismic shift in thinking.
The party must start to focus on the value of vocation — rooted in the philosophical concept of the dignity of labour — and not measure success only by how many kids it can ram through university.
It must begin to view the family unit as the bedrock of a civilised society, recognise the overwhelming evidence showing that children brought up in stable homes with two parents have far better outcomes than those who aren’t, and argue that government policy should be geared towards facilitating that end for as many as possible.
It should acknowledge the misery that crime and anti-social behaviour bring to working-class communities, stop pretending that the solution lies in a determinist view that sees all wrongdoers as victims, and develop policing and justice systems – including much earlier intervention – around the principle that individuals must take ultimate responsibility for their own actions. Law-abiding citizens living on housing estates blighted by high crime are sick and tired of hearing politicians – especially Labour politicians – attribute the destructive activities of a minority to a lack of youth services.
It must end support for open borders — a crackpot idea once supported only by Trotskyists, anarchists and radical liberals — and understand that rapid and large-scale movements of people have, as with those of capital, the capacity to cause social and economic disruption in hard-pressed working-class communities.
It should promote the nation state as the best form of democratic government at its highest level and, particularly, as a bulwark against the agents of globalisation for whom national borders represent an obstacle to neoliberal priorities. On that theme, it must see patriotism for what it is: a genuine love of country, and not something motivated by xenophobia or a hankering for empire – a misconception that causes Labour politicians and activists to look down at their shoes in embarrassment at any mention of the ‘p’ word or to redefine it in a way so banal as to render it meaningless.
On matters of defence and national security, it must leave voters in no doubt that, while operating an ethical foreign policy, a Labour government would keep them safe.
Some of this stuff will be anathema to many inside Labour, but if they want the party to remain relevant, they had better start understanding it. In fact, those activists doubtful that such a programme would be in keeping with the Labour tradition would do well to read up on the history of their own party. For much of its existence, Labour was a deeply patriotic, socially-conservative party, entirely in step with the values of working-class Britain – values that chunks of today’s party, chiefly the soixante-huitards and their political descendants, would dismiss as ‘nativist’ and ‘reactionary’.
Labour must become that patriotic, communitarian, proudly working-class, one-nation party once more. The woke liberals and toytown revolutionaries responsible for leading us to electoral oblivion — and ushering in potentially a decade of Tory rule — must be brave enough to admit they got it spectacularly wrong. If their hearts and minds cannot be won, they must be vanquished. They cannot be allowed to drive a once-great party into the abyss.