A pretty bad year

Anthony Painter

Things are not all fine on the good ship Labour. For all the soothing words, the reassuring mood music, the relaxing atmospherics, the party is facing its biggest existential crisis for two decades. In 2011 it has got worse if anything – because the party has stopped pretending its in trouble when clearly it is.

But wait, there’s the pretty consistent poll lead, the by-election victories, the local council gains so the evidence is the opposite, surely? I’m afraid by-elections and local elections are pretty meaningless in terms of the national picture. Labour had some spectacular wins prior to defeat in 1992. And the by-elections it has faced have been gimmes. The poll lead doesn’t exist – in a choice between a Cameron-Conservative government or a Miliband-Labour government the former option is preferred by around 7%. Say it again: Cameron is ahead in the polls.

Labour is suffering on three counts: society has changed, its organisation is a bad fit for the needs of the moment, and, it’s failing to meet the demands of the political time.

Let’s start with society. Both old Labour and new Labour had a similar view of society. There was a Labour core and swing middle. For old Labour, you motivate your core and show leadership to the rest and that then secures your victory. For new Labour, you bank your core and then reach out to the centre. New Labour’s was the more successful electoral strategy but both old and new Labour looked at the nature of society in strikingly similar ways.

That old model no longer works. Society is a series of bubbles and tribes – lifestyles, values, economic position, culture and location all intersect in a myriad of ways. You no longer win by putting blocks of support together. You do it by combining a nuanced conversation with authentic leadership. People are willing to agree to disagree with you to a certain extent – within certain parameters – as long as you are clear about why you believe what you believe. There are some bottom lines and non-negotiables, eg on economic competence, tax, crime, the NHS, welfare and immigration. Beyond these, it is up to you to craft a resonant story for our times. It’s leadership, stupid.

The left now accepts that society is not secretly socialist and just waiting for a leader or mivement to make it happen. Instead, they now argue that politics has to change society. It’s stark raving mad, frankly. But at least they acknowledge a common starting point – social change. Modern society is too complex for the old models of the left. It’s why Cameron seems like the most likely winner in 2015 on the current trajectory – people don’t really agree with him but they get why he’s doing what he is in these times.

When Labour’s deep organisational malaise is added to social change, the challenge becomes greater. The upper echelons of the Labour party is dominated by brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and friends. They are a group and tribe of their own and they don’t speak to or for modern Britain. Or maybe they do but in the wrong way – the insider’s nation. But we need heavyweight statesmen and women; not former advisers.

We have arrived at this point as a result of the way the party has been run for two decades. It’s a disaster. It’s who you know not what you know. It is a guild – a nepotistic one. Diversity is so important. Yet we have a party that interprets diversity in purely gender or racial terms. You end up with even less diversity as a result. Without diversity you have group think and an absence of creativity. And you seem weird. That is the state of the modern Labour party.

Then there is the current state of the party. Ed Miliband’s problem this year hasn’t been that he’s got it all wrong. It’s been that when he’s got it right it has either been in quieter moments or there’s been no follow through – with the exception of his leadership on phone hacking. His big failures have been in the spotlight: the TUC march speech, his weak response to the riots (‘it’s complex’), his conference speech and his embrace of Occupy. Rather than pretending these things were triumphs or ‘set the terms of political debate’ just because Cameron talks about some similar things, his team and he should just learn from them and move on.

It’s not all down to the leader – and we shouldn’t pretend it is. The highest value within Labour is now loyalty and unity. This isn’t serving the party well. There needs to be more (constructive) disruption at the top and throughout the PLP and party – including the NEC. There is no point uniting around defeat. In fact, it’s dumb. I’m afraid one or two or the party’s officer class are going to have to be braver in 2012. The party is struggling. So is its leader. Neither will be resolved by a phoney unity. Neither leader nor party is served by the silent suffering of those who can see where things aren’t working and need to be put right.

A new General Secretary and a new chief of staff for the leader are two optimistic notes to acknowledge at the end of the year. Unfortunately, it requires more than even these two talented individuals to reset the course. This has been a pretty bad year for Labour – worse in some respects than 2010 because it should have been better. Like the economy, Labour has failed to recover and is facing its own political double-dip. Next year may be final chance to do what needs to be done to make Cameron a one-term prime minister. Has Labour got the brutal self-honesty to do it?

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