Now is not the time for timidity

14th May, 2015 8:37 am

The Conservatives should not even have been in contention in this election. With apparent disregard for its failure to win a majority in 2010, the Tory party abandoned modernisation as soon as it entered office. It haemorrhaged support, in both voter base and parliamentary party, to the United Kingdom Independence party. It has presided over sluggish economic growth which was not felt by most across the country. And it has entrenched negative attitudes about itself – which will endure now for many decades more – among previous swing voters in places like Scotland, Manchester and London.

And yet for all these failures, the Conservative party’s aggressive belief that it alone speaks for the majority of Britain – arrogant and wrong though it may be – dragged it from the depths of the omnishambles budget in 2012 to apparently neck and neck with Labour on polling day.

It should not have been like this, and the Labour party owes it to itself and the country to be ruthless in its analysis of what it got wrong: now is not the time for timidity.

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Seeking comfort in caution throughout the last parliament has meant Labour fought this election with one hand behind its back. A ‘35 per cent strategy’ was strenuously denied in public but pursued in private. Nearly half of the 106 battleground seats which were Ed Miliband’s route to a majority were abandoned, meaning that hard-working candidates, often after years in place working for both Labour and their community, were left to fend for themselves.

Soon we will be at a critical juncture: failure to inspire the public must not blight the Labour party in the 21st century in the same way it did in the 20th. And, although it was not wildly radical and reckless ideas, like those pursued in the 1980s, which held Labour back, the most basic of political lessons – that you cannot build a majority government out of unconvincing policies and an uninspiring message – has been reaffirmed.

Too many manifesto pages were wasted on proposals which, in seeking to satisfy everyone, ended up satisfying no one. The pledge to control immigration was not Ukip enough for those flirting with Nigel Farage, and too Ukip for those repelled by him. A limited cut in tuition fees was a halfway house which was not convincing to young voters attracted by the idealistic Greens, and Labour squandered the chance for a serious debate on education funding. That is not a plan for government, it is a plan to get into government – and the public saw through it.

Whether this was a 35 per cent strategy or not, the party must never repeat the mistake of piecing together a lowest common denominator policy platform entirely in reaction to insurgent parties. Failure to build a coalition of swing voters (which is still where most people are) left Labour hemmed in by insurgent parties to the left and the right, and the entire strategy was undermined when Scotland imploded.

Labour’s future vision must therefore give the country what it needs, people what they want and the party what it believes in. It needs three key elements; without all three side, this triangle will not hold.

First, Labour’s elephant in the room for the past five years has been the economy. The cost-of-living crisis was a strong holding position to neutralise Conservative attacks and draw attention to their failed economic plan, but no party can win unless it speaks to people’s aspirations – the party spent five years saying that things should be better without telling them how. A higher national minimum wage and apprenticeships are what the public expect as high minimums; they are not the maximum ambition for the next generation. Without being able to show families that Labour understands the aspirations they have for their children, the party’s policies will be perceived as aspiration for other people’s kids.

Second, the Labour movement wins when it speaks for working people, but it changes society when it empowers them. In public services politicians of all parties have been too reliant on the levers in Whitehall to achieve change, but as Liz Kendall and Steve Reed showed in their recent pamphlet for Progress, Labour’s only choice for power is to let it go. This must go hand in hand with an empowering economic offer.

Third, the trend towards unpredictability is not just a domestic political challenge. There are huge and existential threats to the better world we want to build and Britain will quickly lose its way in the world without strong and compassionate leadership. As shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden said in interview with Progress late last year, ‘In the last 20 or 30 years the world has become closer together … It’s not frozen as it was in the cold war, there’s a lot of change, and there’s a lot of movement and it is [movement of] people, capital and ideas.’ Labour must be confident in its ability to win opportunity for Britain in the world. That, not the isolationism of Ukip or the short-termism of the Tories, is what believing in Britain is really about.

Centre-left politics is in crisis and it has been for some time, fuelled by a sense of loss and inequality of power. The return of majority Tory government is disheartening to those of us who seek change. But it has always been the optimists and the progressives who build a majority government for Labour. Just as in 1945, 1966 and 1997, it is time for Labour to prove it can be bold and open about the future of our country.

Richard Angell is director of Progress. Join us to debate Labour’s future this Saturday at Progress annual conference 2015: Deciding the decade to come, here.

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  • Aaron Golightly

    The key word for me in the above article is used in relation to working people is ’empowerment’. A party that empowers can change lives. Too often in the recent past we’ve seemed more like a shoulder to cry on than a catalyst for change. If you believe in using the power and influence of government to change and better people’s lives then we need to progress beyond the politics of “there, there, isn’t it awful?” where we offer little more than a mere promise to reverse elements of Tory policy.

    We need to go beyond that. We can’t allow ourselves to be defined by what the Tories are not, basing our narrative around whatever the opposite is to what the Tories propose. This isn’t to say that it isn’t right to champion the abolition of the bedroom tax, challenge zero hours contracts or take a stand against welfare cuts – but that shouldn’t be the extent of our ambitions nor the sole narrative of our message.

    Never again should “Vote for us because we’re not the Tories” be our rallying cry at an election.

    • returner

      Never again should “Vote for us because we’re not the Tories” be our rallying cry at an election.

      Agreed, there was a lack of a central message that belonged to Labour, rather than just being a reaction to someone else’s narrative.

      I’m nervous about an empowerment agenda if it becomes a recipe for (i) another slew of public sector reforms and (ii) endless explanations about why “we” are giving power to “them” and why they’ll like it because it’s “empowering”. But I’ve only read the (unenlightening) “let it go” article linked above.

  • A bit of common sense

    Yes, being bold from day one of the new leader is key. So let’s have some bold policies; drop Trident, adopt proportional representation, put climate change front and centre and promise to insulate the UK housing stock for starters. Be bold and sell the policies with passion!

    • Michael Murray

      Yes. I agree with your suggestions. But I would go further. The general election was a de facto referendum on Europe and we lost badly. It is quite clear from the election result that the majority of people in this country voted for the parties that offered a referendum in preference to us who took a pro Europe stance. If we are ever to see socialism implemented in this country the Labour Party should change its position on Europe and campaign now for withdrawal.

    • CharleyFarleyFive

      You do realise that had PR been in place we would have a Tory government propped up by UKIP?

      • RegisteredHere

        You assume that people would vote for the same party under both systems.

        • CharleyFarleyFive

          A perfectly reasonable assumption. More people would not have voted Labour because the voting system was different.

          • RegisteredHere

            After six months of “Vote UKIP/SNP/Plaid/Green get Labour/Tories!” hysteria, I imagine it more likely that fewer people would have voted Tory or Labour under PR.

          • Canarydan

            And PR generally gets higher turnouts in western democracies, so significantly more people will have voted.

  • bikerboy

    Opening two paragraphs are pure fantasy. Hodges in the Speccy nails it. As usual.

    • Aaron Golightly

      You should read beyond the first two paragraphs as this isn’t a ‘the electorate was wrong’ piece.

      • bikerboy

        No. The rest of it is buzz word bingo.

        • Ian

          “buzz word bingo”, very good, I like it!

      • Michael Murray

        Apparently after our election defeat we have acquired 20,000 new members. I hardly think they are attracted to us because of the charms of Blairite Progress or because they want an ersatz Tory party full of Cabs For Hire.

    • NT86

      Rod Liddle’s piece in the Spectator from yesterday nailed it on the head about Labour.

      • CharleyFarleyFive

        A quite superb piece.

    • CharleyFarleyFive

      My sentiments exactly, I stopped reading after the first two paragraphs. I would also recommend seeking out recent articles from Hodges and also Suzanne Moore.

      • NT86

        Is the Suzanne Moore one about working class Tories? I’m reading that just now. Moore can be quite anti-Tory but she is from a working class background so perhaps has more awareness than the typical Guardian writer.

        • CharleyFarleyFive

          Yes, it’s entitled ‘

          Working-class Tories are not just turkeys voting for Christmas’ I tried to link to it but comment disappeared into moderation.

          You’d think Labour List would allow links to the Guardian lol.

          • NT86

            Finished it and yes it’s an important bit of reading for anyone involved with Labour who reads the Guardian, to begin understanding the party’s problems. Suzanne’s own experiences growing up in a working class household and a Conservative mum give an interesting insight into motivations of these voters.

            The paragraph about “shy” Tory voters wanting simply to be left alone by the state is pretty telling.

          • CharleyFarleyFive

            I’m continually astonished at the sheer level of bile and vitriol that is directed towards Tory voters.

          • NT86

            Indeed. I hope that last week’s result is a time for deep introspection in the left about what and whom it stands for.

            It’s not just southern/Midlands voters going to the Tories. Labour still faces problems in northern heartlands where UKIP has tapped into their vote very effectively, coming second in a string of seats.

          • CharleyFarleyFive

            Rod Liddle has been excellent in the Spectator over the last few days.

  • RegisteredHere

    Second, the Labour movement wins when it speaks for working people, but it changes society when it empowers them.

    I don’t hear the Labour Party shouting about electoral reform, much less constitutional reform now Miliband’s convention has been put on the back burner. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard the Labour party offering the English their own parliament and parity with the Scots either.

    Still, I suppose today we’ll be awash with Labour MPs ripping Osborne’s devo-Westminster ploy apart and demanding a fair deal for the English…..no?

  • marysia

    The elephant in the House of Commons is the under-representation of 52% of the population. We celebrate the parity of LGB MPs to the population of the country but where do we stand on ending the ‘boys club’ in politics. The TV debates highlighted the favourable public response to women arguing reasonably & coherently (however we may disagree with their political stance). As an activist in the recent campaign I was often the only woman among a dozen men working in the office – do I have to join a separate women’s group to fight my own party for representation & parity?

    • Aaron Golightly

      I found the favourable reception shown to the women on the panel during the debates to be a tad patronising. Sturgeon was undeniably superb but by any stretch of the imagination Wood and Bennett were awful. Not sure it goes anyone much good to overlook their deficiencies and say “Well done to the women” with a pat on the head. As I said it seemed a bit patronising and backward.

  • Old Radical

    Part of going forward is to clear away the wreckage of the past. Unfortunately Ed Miliband is part of that wreckage and his continued presence in Parliament is going to be a gift to the Tory press. It is unfortunate but Ed should resign and place his safe seat at the disposal of the party he loves. There are plenty of other roles in the Labour movement or EU for which his energy and enthusiasm would be most welcome. Ed should resign now before he becomes an issue in the leadership election.

    • Michael Murray

      Of course he shouldn’t. He should be in the shadow cabinet.

  • Michael Worcester

    I really think Labour should think about what party it wants to be then elect a leader who will take it there preferably someone untainted by the Brown years. Now the foundation for 2020 defeat is being made just like electing Ed in 2010 was for 2015. The first reaction on DP was Brillo asking Cecil Parkinson what he thought when he heard the news that Ed M was elected Labour leader he replied ‘naturally I was delighted’.

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