Claire Spencer wants us to admit defeat

At Saturday’s Fabian Society ‘Next Left’ conference, General Secretary Sunder Katwala remarked that Labour’s defeat felt akin to bereavement for many of us. We all had a chuckle, but he was far from wrong – our candidates and activists have been in campaign mode for months, giving up most of their spare time in the name of a Labour government and a brighter future. Things had looked bad for a couple of years – but as the polls narrowed and the campaign machines roared into life, many of us hoped as we had never dared to hope before that this was salvageable, that we could win, that we could still deliver. And maybe we could have – but we didn’t – and losing that hope, that future really hit Labour people hard.

I haven’t changed my view that a Labour win would have been the best thing for the country – the timing and precision of public spending cuts, the environment and our position in Europe, to name but three areas of concern – even though it would not have been the best thing for Labour. But it doesn’t really matter what I think – as so many of the speakers at Saturday’s conference reminded us, we lost, and we lost badly, and we can’t hold the electorate in contempt for that. We failed. It felt bad, it still does – but now I feel as though I have sped through the stages of bereavement, right through to hope. At this point, we have the opportunity to take one eye off governance, and to really turn ourselves into the movement for positive change that we believe we can be, and to turn that into something eminently electable by the time we reach the next general election – hopefully in time for the people who need us as much as we need them.

Earlier this week, I took this message to my local branch meeting – and, certainly, our ideas to become a movement that more people could embrace gave me real cheer. We actually held the seat in Birmingham Hall Green, but we lost the trust of the same core voters that Labour has lost everywhere. I don’t feel like we really won when those who were previously Labour voters preferred to stay at home, or voted for Respect. So I’m glad that my fellow members didn’t see this as an opportunity to rest on their laurels, because it really, really isn’t.

By the time Saturday and Next Left rolled around, I was really looking forward to this process kicking off in a national way. Knowing, as I did, that Ed Miliband was going to launch his leadership campaign, I had particularly high hopes. To me, Ed is someone who is respected and respectful enough to understand that a healthy exchange of different views that spring from the same values is a good thing, not a frustration or a barrier, and to really make something of that with passion and fire. He is also someone whom I trusted to look on the past with a balanced eye – to know why it was good when it was good, and why it was bad when it was bad.

Sure enough, he told us that: “as time wore on we came to seem more caretakers than idealists—more technocratic than transformative. And when political parties lose that sense of idealism and mission they become much more vulnerable to the currents of events. For us, increasingly, because we lost that sense of progressive mission, we found ourselves beached, unable to speak to too many of the concerns of the people of our country.”

The day was full of painful truths like this.  Learning from mistakes is painful when it’s done properly.  It has to be. People keep saying that Labour is finished, that we have been wiped out.  But that is nonsense. It is bravado. We have been damaged, largely by our own actions, and we must now listen, rethink and repair. This is a journey, and so we can’t see this leadership campaign as simply that – it’s also an opportunity to throw the discussion open to those who we want to represent. It starts here.  

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