How to rebuild a Party

Labour people won’t take advice from me, and I’m ok with that. In fact, given what I’m about to say, please don’t read it at all. Carry on in your assurance that telling voters they’re wrong, telling voters they’re fools who fell for lies, will win you power in 2024.

I am a Tory. I’m not a member anymore, but I’ve been a member, an association officer, a party staffer, a council candidate and a councillor. I joined the party under John Major. I endured Hague and his baseball cap, IDS and his “turning up the volume” and Howard’s relentless messaging without human instinct. So I know a little bit about how a party can reinvent itself after an electorate wipeout.

Labour has to own why it lost.

It didn’t lose because the Tories lied. Though they weren’t entirely honest. It didn’t lose because the BBC is biased against them. It didn’t lose because of Russian interference. It didn’t lose because its leader was hammered in the media. Importantly, it didn’t lose because of Brexit or because of Corbyn.

Labour lost its soul.

The loss last week has been a long time coming. You could argue it started under Blair. I think it started earlier than that. I think it started in 1992, for the same reasons Labour won in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Since 1992, Labour have been losing working class voters. It’s happened at every election, and it’s the flaw that Jeremy Corbyn was supposed to stop.

The Labour Party is supposed to be the party of the working class. The Tories are supposed to be the party of the boss class. That’s politics 101. But, here’s a little secret. The Tories have always needed working class votes to win elections. And Labour has always needed middle class votes to win.

Blair, Brown and Labour’s new generation were shell shocked by 1992. They were so sure Kinnock was going to beat Major. The Welsh orator versus the South London auditor. It should have been a walkover. But the Middle Class didn’t trust Labour. The 1992 election was won by the Tories because they painted Kinnock and John Smith as being high tax, high spend Socialists.

When John Smith tragically died, in 1994, his successor, Blair, knew that he had to create a coalition of voters that would include middle class voters if he wanted to implement Labour’s policies. The 1997 Labour victory was built on a campaign that went relentlessly after the middle class. Slowly, over the following 10 years, the middle class became a core demographic for Labour. But as the policies focussed on the middle class, the cynical politics of Blairism meant that the working class – especially the Northern working class – were left behind. Blair effectively said who else are they gonna vote for?!!

The warning signs should have been there much earlier. Indeed, under Gordon Brown we heard much about how his Premiership was going to empower working people. But then the fiscal mistakes he’d made over the previous two terms started to come home to roost; borrowing at a time of boom just to keep the lights on meant the UK haemorrhaged cash when the crash came. The resulting austerity devastated Northern communities, but for the most part they kept voting Labour, for historical reasons.

Then under David Cameron, Labour’s failures were truly given form. In 1998, Labour had introduced devolution to Scotland and Wales, and Scottish devolution had been designed to protect Labour’s predominant position as the Party of Scotland. In 2007, a crack appeared in the Scottish edifice, with Alex Salmond’s SNP winning 47 seats to Labour’s 46. In 2011, facing a Tory/Lib Dem coalition in London, the Scots once again backed the SNP, this time giving them an out and out majority.

The 2010 UK General election saw Gordon Brown and 40 other Labour MPs elected in Scotland. The Lib Dem’s got 11, and the SNP won just 6 seats. Yet a year later the SNP won a majority in the Holyrood Parliament, and with it the right to an Independence Referendum.

Referenda may not be popular these days, but in the first part of the decade they were all the rage. We had an AV referendum, which the Tories won. We had an In/Out referendum on Scottish Independence. Which ostensibly the UK Government won. And of course then we had the EU In/Out referendum, which Leave won.

I argue it was the second of these referenda which has proven fatal to Labour’s electoral chances.

Labour lined up alongside the Tories and the Lib Dem’s and just about everyone, favouring the Union. It did so for a number of reasons: the 41 seats Labour held in Scotland at that time were the reason the Tories didn’t have a majority; and it would be hammered by the Tories for failing to stand by the Union in the rest of the country.

This meant that for Scots it was clear: if you were part of the 45% or thereabouts who voted for Independence, only the SNP was on your side.

The following year, at the General Election, disaster struck Labour north of the border. While 45% is never enough to win a referendum, it is pretty much always enough to win a Westminster constituency under First Past the Post.

Labour won just 1 of the 41 seats it had held in Scotland prior to the 2015 General Election.

Ed Miliband promptly resigned, and a new Labour leader was called forth – but from a radically different part of the party.

Jeremy Corbyn. The man who could walk on water. The man who would revive the party’s fortunes. The man from the left who could inspire the young to turnout and back his form of socialism.

At first he was treated as a joke. But then a movement was inspired to support him. He DID get the young involved. Maybe he was the answer? He started to get momentum, and suddenly the joke was winning. A Labour movement crying out for change decided it didn’t want more of the same, and seized upon the mirage of hope.

Things became a bit of a farce from the start. Corbyn had no support in the Parliamentary party, and swiftly faced a vote of no confidence which was overwhelmingly backed by his Parliamentary colleagues. They knew then what we would come to know; that his crank ideas and less than wholesome friends were just part of the reason that he had remained on the back benches through six party leaders and 13 years of Labour Government.

There is no need now for an in-depth article about what a mistake Corbyn was. Many have been written most were ignored and it is clear that the man himself is leaving the stage in just a few weeks time. What is much more important, at least for the Labour Party, is an understanding of what the next leader needs in his or her skill set.

Apologise

 The first thing the new leader has to do is apologise. Not just to the Jewish community, although clearly that will be a vital component of any apology. But also to the thousands of people who are suffering hardship under a Tory government that for nine years has failed to run an economy that levels up and supports the poorest in our society. Labour’s historic loss will have left people who need a Labour government in need. They were sacrificed at the altar of the cult of Corbyn.

Rebuild the party

The far left and the party within a party, Momentum, have taken control of the party. Labour’s National Executive Committee is dominated by Momentum. But also local CLP’s have been infiltrated by Momentum and in many cases will need this parasitical movement removed. Those who are around in the 1980s, when Neil Kinnock took on Militant, will know how difficult and how nasty this fight will be.

Re-focus the party

As I said at the beginning, Labour is the party of the working class. If it is to win power, then it must be once again the party of the working class, without losing those middle-class votes which it needs to win power.

Working-class voters are not a homogenous block. They cannot be spoken down to or patronised in the way that the Labour leadership have tried since 1992. They have shown this election that when pushed too far, they are prepared to vote against the party which is supposed to be looking out for them. Labour have to rebuild the trust of these working-class voters. It may be that a London middle-class remain voting Waitrose shopping lawyer is the person to reconnect with the north of England. As I said working class voters don’t like being patronised, but I’m pretty certain that a quick way to get their attention is to appoint a leader who understands northern communities, Leave communities and working-class communities. That leader is neither Sir Kier Starmer, nor Jess Phillips.

The Labour leader capable of winning in 2024 is which ever leader answers not the 2019 general election question but the question for that election. The question most likely to be asked at that next election will be how the economic effects of dealing with climate change are mitigated for the working class.

There are tens of thousands of workers in car plants in Sunderland and Birmingham and Bristol and Oxford and all across the nation who will be facing uncertainty as we head towards a carbon neutral future. In 15 years time manufacturing Diesel engines will no longer be a profitable business. As a result, those thousands of workers are facing an economy moving away from them at a rate the working class haven’t seen since the switch from coal to nuclear power. The devastation of the coalfields will be nothing against the enormous changes coming to our economic sectors as a result of a mitigation of climate change. The political leader who can identify a way through this minefield is the leader who can regain power for Labour.

Dump the socialism

The key change in 1994 was that Labour went from being a Democratic Socialist party to a social Democratic party. To many that may seem like dancing on the head of a pin. But it is an important distinction.

Socialism is an economic theory which has been repeatedly found wanting in practice. Every single country that has tried socialism, has failed to introduce “proper socialism” and has seen their economy collapse. Fundamentally, it is an economic theory which does not work. The acceptance of that failure by the Blair government allowed them to take power in 1997, retain that power in 2001, and retain that power in 2005. socialism does not work, and anyone who says it does needs to read a history book.

There is, however, clearly a space for a social Democratic party in British politics. The worst excesses of the Conservatives in power will need to be repaired. Indeed the Tories will focus on the economy to the exclusion of the environment. While many Tories would say that is unfair to charge, history has shown that when the environment gets in the way of economic growth, the ‘green crap’ gets dumped.

So the new leader of the Labour Party needs to make very clear, once and for all, that the Labour Party is a social Democratic movement for change, not a democratic socialist movement trying to reinstate a failed economic theory. Without making this change clear, their economic plans will never be credible, and those who are just about managing or just getting by will not take the risk of voting for them. It also happens to be the right thing to do, but when as a politician ever followed that role!

For Labour, rebuilding after this disastrous election will be a painful and difficult process. It took the Tories 13 years and three leaders. Labour are now approaching their third leader and their 10th year out of power. Yet they are further away from a return to government than they were 10 years ago. it may be that there is no obvious leader now who can create that social Democratic movement for change which will answer the conundrum of the 2020s and 2030s. It may be that Labour have to go through a third failed leader before they find a winner. Indeed, the challenge faced by any incoming leader will be such that it may feel impossible to make sufficient gains in one go. but if Labour once again selects a leader based on what its middle-class activists want rather than its working-class core vote, it will be failing to read the ruins of this election.