Labour renewal must transcend tribes to put voters, not members, first

Amid all the “who’s up and who is down” commentary on Labour’s leadership contest, it’s easy to forget that the contest is about selecting a Prime Minister in waiting, not a leader of the opposition. In today’s FT, Philip Stephens argues that if Labour’s defeat had been a little more crushing, our reflections would be more realistic. In today’s Telegraph, Mary Riddell warns against knee-jerk tribalism in opposition and urges Labour to resist retributive instincts that are stopping leadership candidates from agreeing with coalition policies now and again.

The election result surely shows that political tribalism is now dead in the water and that relying on a core vote strategy is ‘ballot box suicide’. But equally unrealistic is an obsession with winning back skilled working class C2s that ignores Labour’s vote share collapsing across all lower social classes. Whoever wins the leadership is going to need to make some big and symbolic repositions to show that Labour has listened, learned and most importantly, changed.

Time is of the essence. Labour had the chance to renew in office but left it too late. By the time the manifesto was published, the frame through which voters judged Labour had already been set. The Tories made the mistake of burning through three leaders before they were prepared to renew their ideas and reposition their offer to voters. We can’t afford to do the same.

A new collection of essays from Soundings and the Open Left project at Demos has scoped out some common ground for a pluralist political renewal, the like of which proved impossible to reach in 2007. Right at the centre is a significant rapprochement between James Purnell and Neal Lawson based on serious concessions by both.

James Purnell now rightly accepts that “Labour needs to be bold reformers of both the state and the market.” But he concedes that “New Labour ended up being only the former. Indeed, it is because we were too hands off with the market that we became too hands on with the state.”

For his part, Neal Lawson accepts that “the Big Society is on to something. The state does crowd out. It does make us dependent and powerless.” His traditional call for regulation and reform of the market is now tempered by acceptance that “the left was stronger when it relied on a range of autonomous, civil-society, non-state organisations such as mutuals, friendly societies and trade unions.”

This common ground is only possible to cultivate when Labour leaves its tribalism at the door. David Lammy argues that “we must get beyond a conversation in which new Labour types speak only of lost support among C2s while idealists lament the betrayal of the working class. The truth is more complex – and more challenging – than either of these diagnoses.” As someone broadly considered a ‘new Labour type’ he is breaking his own mold to accept that “movements are energized not by narrow tribalism but a willingness to work with people from other organisations and political traditions.”

Amid this new found Labour love-in, there is an important warning to sound. It may sound obvious, but Labour’s next leader needs a dramatic gear change between their acceptance speech to the party on Saturday 25 September and their leader’s speech to the nation on Tuesday 28 September. Cameron used his leadership election against Davis to prepare the ground for his detoxification of the ‘nasty party’ and secure a mandate for that political manoeuvring.

Labour’s long but crowded contest means that none of the five candidates will emerge with much of a mandate for repositioning the party. The contest has been backward looking because members want to be reassured the new leader will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Voters, however, will soon forget Blair and Brown and will judge Labour’s Prime Minister in waiting and not Labour’s leader of the opposition.

 Richard Darlington is Head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply