by Tom Clements
I hate anecdotes. I hate how people from all parts of the political spectrum use them to highlight their arguments. I hated how Jeremy Paxman used one to eviscerate Ed’s apparent weakness on foreign policy.
But here’s mine.
One of my closest friends was talking to me about Labour’s defeat. He is a stereotypical Labour-Tory swing voter. Wanting social justice but also wanting to do well for himself. He asked me what we offered people in his position. People who aren’t super rich but are, god willing, never going to experience the hardship of food banks or the benefits trap.
He voted Conservative because we had nothing to say to him.
If you were me you might have accused him of being selfish and argued that he should want the same opportunities for the next generation. You might have screamed at him about his inability to see the bigger picture for our society. You might have appealed to his compassion for the working people forced to choose between heating and eating.
But you would have been wrong.
Not that your ideas were wrong or that these aren’t very real concerns that our party should be attempting to tackle. But it is the wrong argument to make.
Of course people don’t want to see the number of food banks increasing or hear stories of the latest inhumane example of a vulnerable victim of the Bedroom Tax. However, they want to be certain that their living standards are going to be protected first.
The voters in England had a choice between a safety first Conservative government, albeit with obvious problems; or a Labour party that was prepared to risk the house on the gamble that Britain wanted a return to Keynes. They made their choice. We ran an election on a message of family finances and the simple truth is that people didn’t trust us with theirs.
It is up to the next leader of our party to ensure that this does not happen again. To ensure that people don’t have to decide between a party that will protect their family’s future and a party that will create a more just country.
People that vote Conservative aren’t evil. They aren’t immune to the social ills that have fractured our country nor are they unconcerned. They vote Conservative when they don’t trust Labour with their economic future.
That is why it is essential that the next leader offers middle income, aspirant voters the certainty that their jobs, their living standards and the economy will be protected. They want us to show that we understand their ambition. That we understand the importance of creating wealth and helping people to provide a great life and great opportunities for their family.
It is only then that we will earn the right to be listened to. Then we will have earned the right to campaign against the non-dom rule or fight for an increase to the minimum wage. Because until we regain that right to be heard, those on middle incomes will wonder why the Labour Party insists on defending the rights and living standards of the people at the bottom instead of people like them. They will continue to ask what Labour is offering them.
We cannot be in a position to deliver the fair and equal society that we all want without the crucial votes of these voters. We cannot deliver the fair and equal society without the wealth created by these voters.
This year we failed. We alienated these voters and paid the price at the polls.
Too often our rhetoric veers between attacking vested interests and promising to improve the lives of the poorest in our society. Whilst these are incredibly important issues, this is not the kind of message that will win us an election. Robin Hood politics cannot work without the promise of prosperity for middle income families.
But as much as we bemoan our failure and our defeat; it is nothing compared to the defeat and the suffering that will be endured by the very people that need a Labour government. That is why it is so vital that we make the really tough decisions now.
And this doesn’t mean holding our noses whilst we pay lip service to the importance of business and the need for producers instead of producers. We must really mean it. We must offer real policies to appeal to business, to appeal to aspirational voters, to appeal to the middle class.
We cannot go into another election offering social justice without economic competence. Offering to soak the rich to help the poor all the while ignoring the middle class. It was what New Labour realised and we won three times. For thirteen years people’s lives were improved and Britain became better.
We didn’t do enough about inequality. And there was plenty more we didn’t do besides. But can you really walk past the school that was rebuilt or be treated at the hospital that was revitalised or see the amount of new graduates without admitting that it was worth it?
This year we tried to move on from New Labour and put right the things we missed. We offered more homes and an improved minimum wage and an end to the Bedroom Tax. It was a really positive, socially democratic offer. But we appealed to the party and the already converted so we missed the cornerstone of successful progressive politics.
We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again.
Socially progressive policies can only be delivered through economic prosperity. The next leader must fight for this every day of their leadership. We must be trusted us to deliver an improved economy.
We weren’t in May. We weren’t with Ed. That is why Nuneaton, Pudsey and Battersea stayed blue with a swing away from Labour. And that is why David Cameron won a majority.
So our task is clear: we must spend every day until the next general election regaining our reputation for economic competence. Without making the difficult choices now we will never be in a position to make the changes we all want to see. We could end the Bedroom Tax, we could create better jobs, we could create a living wage and we could make sure that all children had the chance to succeed regardless of their background.
Or we could make the easy choices. And there will still be the bedroom tax, there will still be injustice, our human rights will be dictated by Michael Gove and there will be nothing we can do about it.
Tom Clements is a history and politics teacher in Leeds