A guest post today from Stuart MacLennan on the Labour Party: leadership and policy. Thanks Stu!
In the couple of months that have passed since the election, I find myself increasingly despondent with our hopes for the future. It seems I’m not alone in this. I started writing this post over a month ago, but buried it for fear of seemingly like a stereotypical lefty crank. But even the noble and learned Lord Mandelson seems to share my despondency, so I felt, perhaps, it was worth commenting further upon the Leadership election presently underway within the party.
We are repeatedly told that the Labour Party has failed to “learn the lessons of the past” – which is true. Unfortunately for us, far too many people who are keen to learn those lessons have been going to the wrong classes altogether.
In the 2015 General Election, Labour suffered a double whammy, losing support on our right – to the Tories and UKIP – and on our left – primarily to the SNP, but also to other parties too. This poses a dilemma to the party. In the past we’ve suffered losses at either end, but never before in recent memory have we suffered both at the same time. How do we address this? The fact that losses to our right occurred primarily in England, and losses to our left occurred primarily in Scotland has led people to the obvious, but incorrect, answer that we need to move to the right in England, and to the left in Scotland – and that only a total separation between Scotland and England enables this.
Chasing voters is the most cynical – and usually least effective – way of doing politics. “People voted for X, so if we’re more like X then they’ll vote for us instead.” This is utter nonsense, and Scottish politics illustrates this. In response to a sizeable number of former Labour voters voting for Scottish independence, Jim Murphy sought to woo them back by being more “patriotic”. But if you vote for the SNP because you’re an existential nationalist, why on earth would you vote for Labour because they’re a bit nationalistic, but nothing like as much as the SNP? The answer is, of course, that you wouldn’t.
Nonetheless, this is the exact same approach that is advocated by fellow vote-chasing cynical Blairite, Liz Kendall. Kendall’s answer to Labour’s lack of electoral appeal is, as Yvette Cooper put it, to swallow the Tory manifesto. Think about this from the same perspective as above: if you support the Conservative position on most things, why would you vote for a party that’s basically the same, just a bit less so? The answer, again, is that you wouldn’t.
The need for an alternative
Opposition parties are at an incredible disadvantage. Not just in terms of resource (although having the machinery of the civil service to work out your policies for you is an undoubted advantage over reliance upon Short Money staffers) but because Britain is an inherently conservative country. That is not to say that the majority of Britons are ideologically right-wing, but that we are inherently suspicious of change. That suspicion can be overcome, but the strong presumption in the minds of British electors is that the devil you know is always preferable.
So the first task in winning elections from opposition is persuading voters to defy their conservative tendencies and agree that an alternative to the present government is desirable. Sometimes you can get lucky – as Tony Blair did – and find yourself up against a government of whom the electorate have grown so tired that you barely have to make this argument. David Cameron arguably benefitted from such a sentiment, as did Wilson in 1964; but this alone is not enough to propel you to Number 10. Labour undoubtedly made this case well in the late 80s, which spurred the Conservative Party – and subsequently the electorate – to agree that a change was needed (which, unfortunately for Neil Kinnock, was not him). Similar observations could be made of Tony Blair’s Government in 2005. On both occasions incumbent governments of whom the electorate had grown tired were not challenged by opposition alternatives that the electorate found remotely attractive.
In 2015, contrary to the “Red Ed” dogma that appears to permeate the Blairite right since the election, Labour’s economic message was, in fact, a conservative one. There can be little doubting that we accepted the premise of the Conservatives’ economic message. Our own economic position was “we’ll be basically like the Tories, but shitter at it”. For this reason, we fundamentally failed the first test for winning elections from opposition – that we need an alternative. If you believe that the Tories’ approach to the economy is the right one, then why on earth would you vote for Tory-lite? Why have the shandy when you can have Special Brew? On this basis, Labour fundamentally failed to persuade the electorate that an alternative to the present government’s approach was either needed, nor desirable.
Therefore, once you have achieved the difficult task of persuading the electorate that an alternative to the present government is required, you then have to persuade them that you are an appealing alternative. The prerequisite of this step is that you actually have to be an alternative.
The need for an appealing alternative
Having made it through stage one – either by accident or by design – it then follows that you have to adequately meet the second test. That is to say, that the electorate, now convinced of the need for an alternative to the present officeholders, have to believe that you are the alternative that they crave. Failing this second test will result in people either plumping for what they know, or those who crave a change looking elsewhere. So it’s not simply enough to be an alternative, you have to be an appealing alternative.
In 2015, Labour suffered the catastrophic double-whammy of failing both tests.
As I detailed above, by the mid-90s Labour did not have to do very much to persuade voters that an alternative was required. However, for all he was painted as a centrist, Tony Blair’s Labour was distinctive to an extent. In the same way that Wilson focused on technology and modernisation, New Labour – at the very least – embodied an energetic renewal of Britain’s stuffy politics. It wasn’t radical, though it was distinctive; and, crucially, New Labour smacked of managerial competence and personal appeal – which by this stage was the exact antithesis of John Major’s government.
It is not necessary to stray particularly far onto your opponents’ political turn in order to win office. For all his critics on his own side might have decried him for being the “Heir to Blair”, there has never been much doubt that David Cameron is planted firmly on the political right. Certainly, Margaret Thatcher never felt it necessary to embrace any part of the Labour platform in order to win office, and comfortably retain it.
But I do not advocate that was is needed is an alternative that is necessarily radical, but rather, an alternative that has mass appeal. Our platform in 2015 was anything but appealing. Our offering to the public was composed of a handful of minor platitudes to the left and right. The gist of the 2015 manifesto was:
• “Banning zero-hours contracts” – except that hardly anyone is actually on a zero-hours contract and a lot of the people who are, it turns out, actually quite like them;
• “Ending the bedroom tax” – a noble pursuit, except, again, it’s something that hardly anyone has actually been affected by;
• “Cutting tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000?” – we’re going to cripple students with *slightly* less debt;
• “NHS” – Britain’s answer to motherhood and apple pie.
Where is the appeal to the masses? Where is the distinctive position? It’s certainly a long way from the radical platforms upon which the governments of 1945 and 1979 were elected.
Is all lost for the Kendallites?
Those adherents to the Kendall-cause aren’t entirely without hope. It might well be that – for reasons unrelated to policy – the present conservative government might become so unpopular that the electorate seeks out another conservative government – just one that isn’t run by the Tories. But unless it transpires that David Cameron and George Osborne are manifestly corrupt and/or incompetent (which they’re not) then the Liz Kendall approach to leadership – which is, ostensibly, following voters – is doomed to failure.
We cannot win elections by chasing voters and, worse still, following our opponents. It may be an article of faith to the Blairites in England, and the Trots in Scotland, but the mountain cannot come to Mohammed. To win again, we need first to convince electors that an alternative to the approach of this Conservative government is required – something you cannot do by emulation. We then need to persuade voters that we are the alternative that they crave, and we cannot do that with insipid, piecemeal policies aimed at a fraction of a percent of voters at a time.
In 1945, we fought an election ostensibly on the issue of housing. Its mass appeal is that everyone needs a house and we didn’t have enough of them. The same could be said for today. Similarly, as a population we are more mobile than ever, and evidence appears to suggest that the public are open to radical ideas with respect to transport. These are just two areas in which the potential exists for alternative approaches that appeal to the masses, and not just the fringes.
What we need is an appealing alternative. Is that too much to ask?