It’s difficult to approach this Labour leadership election with unreserved enthusiasm.
A leadership contest invariably comes about as a result of failure. (In my lifetime, the most notable exception to this rule was the one which followed the unexpected death of John Smith in 1994.)
The one which faces us in 2020 is, however, about more than just electoral failure.
As some commentators and members of the party have noted, Labour faces an existential threat.
Nine years into Tory rule – and despite gaining seats in 2017 – Labour lost 59 seats. We have gone from facing a fragile Tory minority government in a hung parliament, to a Tory majority government – and with a massive majority of 80. This is the biggest Tory majority for over thirty years, and they will know how to use the power that comes with it.
I make no apology for outlining the scale of Labour’s defeat.
It is no good – in fact, it is self-deceiving – to suggest that ‘we won the argument’, even if we did not win the election. Something is hidden when we use such phrases to make ourselves feel better: and that is the blunt fact that no party has a right to exist. Political parties can die, and we do well to remember that.
If we are to avoid that fate, we must learn some hard lessons. To do this requires us to do two things:
First, we need to acknowledge the multilayered reasons for our defeat
The election revolved around Brexit. That our defeat might be connected to our stance on this is not easy for Remainers like myself to accept. But we must. Not only was our message convoluted and unclear, it was also seen as undermining a decision that had been arrived at democratically. For Remainers, we weren’t remain enough; for Leavers, we weren’t listening to them.
In some ways, our failure over Brexit is the easiest aspect of our dilemma to solve. Brexit will happen: what matters is that we are ready to pick up the pieces of whatever emerges out of that new political reality.
We cannot, either, ignore the problem of leadership. Anyone who tries to pretend that Jeremy Corbyn was not a problem to the average voter is deceiving themselves. There was too much baggage associated with him that made it easy for the press – never kind to Labour leaders – to make hay by drawing upon his voting record and those perceived to be his friends.
Second, we must engage with the issue of trust
This lies beneath both our approach to Brexit and the problem of our leader. Both meant we were not trusted by the electorate.
This had a knock-on effect. An ambitious and exciting manifesto is pointless if the people – and crucially the person – selling it are not trusted by the electorate.
Trust is the thing we most need to regain. And this requires taking a long, hard look at our behaviour.
The antisemitism scandal revealed both the willingness of some on the left to subscribe to conspiracy theory (in this case, the oldest conspiracy theory of all), and the abject failure of the party to expel those peddling it. The processes of the party were revealed as not fit for purpose. Who can blame voters if they concluded that a party that can’t run itself is not fit to run the country?
It was, however, worse than that. This appalling scandal wasn’t just about failures in our processes: it also revealed us to voters as the new ‘Nasty Party’.
This is the part of our recent past that should shame and sadden us most.
In the past, I’ve always enjoyed the comradeliness and solidarity of constituency and branch meetings. People like me – at the time, a member of Labour Left – could tease and joke with friends who were members of Progress. Membership of those positions didn’t feel vicious or personal: we might have disagreed, but we were all part of the same party: part of the one Labour family.
It is difficult to say the same about the current party.
That Ann Black, Owen Smith and Tom Watson – committed servants of the party – could be treated as enemies by so many on the left should have acted as a wake up call. It certainly woke me up. It revealed the dark side of purity politics where being Labour is not enough. Only one view seemed to be valid, and any disagreement was to be shouted down. No wonder so many people left the party.
So how can we go forward?
It’s easy to say we must unite.
First we must reclaim the party as a broad church, where a range of views are seen as creative and vital for establishing a politics that is left of centre and appeals to the wider electorate.
To do this, means resisting making factionalism our raison d’etre. I say this as someone who benefited from being on a left slate for the NPF. I now think this kind of internal group action is unhelpful for the future health of the party. We end up in our echo chambers, rather than cultivating together the kind of fruitful discussions and activities needed for a practical politics.
At the same time, we cannot avoid the fact that not all perspectives can be accommodated comfortably in the party. The Labour Party is not a branch of the Communist Party. We are not a revolutionary socialist party. We are not libertarians. We are not individualistic liberals. We are democratic socialists and social democrats. We believe in the power of joint action and cooperation, and these are the values that must be at the heart of our party.
This means we must start with the most important thing we do: working together in and for our communities. The old saying ‘The Party that Campaigns Together, Stays Together’ is a good one. The things we focus on should be the things that matter most to people, for this is what grounds us in our communities and enables us to forge alliances with those who our party is meant to represent. We must campaign for the flourishing of our communities, not for ourselves.
At the moment, we are too easily distracted from the issues that mean most to people: health; education; purposeful and properly paid work; community and civic pride; crime. It is in grounded political action, taking up roles in local government and community organisations, that we best prepare the way for national electoral success. We focus on the things that matter, and show voters that we are competent and to be trusted.
And so we return to the issue of leadership.
We need a leader who reaches out to those who are not members of our party, but who have or will vote for us. To reach out requires a leader who inspires confidence not fear; someone who is able to present a radical agenda for change, but who also reassures and is able to take people with him or her.
At the moment, and as we listen to the candidates, I think I know who best fits that profile.
But as we listen to what the candidates have to say, it is no bad thing to keep challenging ourselves. We must look outside our comfort zone. We haven’t got the luxury of another electoral failure, and we owe it to ourselves -and, more importantly, our communities and our country – to get this right.