We must answer the question – or we lose

Question MarkThe Paul Richards column

One of the more important meetings of the shadow cabinet took place on Tuesday, when Liam Byrne presented the early findings of the ‘listening exercise’ which presages the review of Labour’s policies ordered by Ed Miliband. Over 20,000 submissions have been received, and six thousand people have taken part in 70-odd meetings. Lest you think I am abusing my privileged position as a part-time shadow cabinet factotum to reveal secrets, it was all in the Guardian on Wednesday.

The findings of the listening exercise would be surprising only to anyone whose sole exposure to politics is via a think-tank, pressure group or political party. Anyone with on nodding terms with the electorate would recognise the top-lines as an accurate representation of majority British opinion: tough on crime (and to hell with the causes), a preference for money to be spent in the UK’s roads and schools before those of India or Nigeria, a crackdown on benefit cheats and lazy arses who don’t want to work, and a strong desire to see the NHS and school system work properly. Add in a little mild xenophobia towards the continental Europeans and a visceral loathing of MPs and bankers, and you’ve pretty much got an accurate snap-shot of the opinions of the people we need to vote Labour at the next election. The shadow cabinet didn’t need 20,000 submissions to find that out; they could have spent the evening in a pub in Hemel Hempstead, Crawley or Dartford chatting to the regulars.

The challenge for a socialist party seeking the votes of a non-socialist electorate has been the same down the ages. It is about persuading non-Labour people that their self-interest is served by voting Labour. It may be that we didn’t come into Labour politics to help affluent voters in Essex; it may be that we came into politics to end homelessness, tackle poverty, end the scandal of poor children being written off before even going to school. But the truth is that unless affluent people back us in vast numbers, we can offer the poorest people nothing except charity. When Labour has recognised the true nature of the electorate, electoral success has never been far behind; when Labour has mythologised the electorate, or projected its own desires onto them, it has failed miserably.

In 1978, Eric Hobsbawm famously warned that Labour must reach out to a changing electorate:

“the future of Labour and advance of socialism depends on mobilising people who remember the date of the Beatles’ break-up, and not the date of the Saltley pickets; of people who have never read Tribune and who do not give a damn about the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.”

He was ignored. Labour instead chose to follow the path of bitter internal strife over meaningless slogans and bonkers policies, personified by Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. Benn’s bid to be deputy leader of the Labour Party was backed by, amongst others, the Posadists who believed socialism would be brought to earth by aliens (because only socialism could deliver the higher stages of development required for interplanetary travel). I was reminded of those far-off times this week with the launch of something describing itself as ‘GEER’ which is ‘all about putting the third way behind us, by renewing our focus on Gender, Environment, Equality and Race’ which is another way of saying ‘putting our electoral success behind us, and focusing on things we care about, but the voters don’t.’ It’s probably too early to judge ‘GEER’ but I’m going to anyway: if Labour listens to the advice implicit within GEER’s mission statement, that we can win with some kind of rainbow coalition of oppressed minorities and people interested in recycling, then we will cease to exist as a major political party within a decade.

I don’t believe Labour will lurch to the left. The far greater danger is not that we become wholly out of touch with the electorate, but that we become slightly out of touch with the electorate. I enjoy, but do not share, the ranty excesses of my old friend Dan Hodges who wants to divide the party up into flat-earthers and round-earthers (the former being anyone who disagrees with his Chicken Licken analysis of Labour’s prospects). No, the greater danger for Labour is to fall into the various policy traps being laid by Cameron ahead of the election: to be on the wrong side of the public’s attitude towards NHS reform, tackling Islamist extremism, reforming parliament, or providing council houses for people on £100k. On each issue, Labour must be pitch perfect, not slightly discordant. Like the difference between madness and genius, or ugliness and beauty, the calibration between Labour being in or out of touch is tiny but vital.

Liam Byrne’s presentation on Tuesday made clear that Labour’s defeat in 2010 was not some minor or temporary falling-out between Labour and the electorate. It was a massive rejection of the party, its policies and its leaders. As we write our programme for the next Labour government, we should remember that the voters won’t ask about the environment or foreign aid at the 2015 election. They will ask a far more searching question ‘what’s in it for me?’ That’s the question that requires a compelling answer. Without it, we lose.

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