Rachel Reeves spoke at a “One Nation” conference last week – and made an important observation regarding the potential peril that Labour faces. Here’s an extract of what she said:
‘Traditional voters, who perhaps at times we took for granted but had nowhere else to go, are now being offered an alternative by Ukip.
‘Our voters, if I can still call them that, see Ukip [as] a party who are offering a vision and a hope that things can be better.
‘They hear something from that party that resonates with them and with their fears for the future and that’s something very real that we have to contend with and it’s something real that we have to contend with for two reasons.
‘First of all, for purely electoral reasons, we have to hold on and build that coalition again of our traditional voters.
‘The Labour party came into existence to give a voice for ordinary working people. What I saw… were middle class, public sector, well-educated young graduates voting Labour, but the people who the Labour Party was set up to help, abandoning us.’
‘Our very raison d’etre will be threatened if the working people, who the Labour Party have got to be there for, and got to be a voice for, start to drift away because they don’t see us as the answer.’
I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, and Reeves should be applauded for standing up and saying it. Last week we reported on research that shows Labour are losing the support of working class voters in key seats. That shouldn’t even be the smallest of surprises for anyone who has spent time campaigning for the party in recent years. The disillusionment with politics is rife, and it worsened whilst Labour was at the helm.
And yet what is the party’s response to this potentially terminal loss of support from Labour’s traditional base? Ed Miliband’s speech in Thurrock immediately after the European elections was a good start, but the tone he struck that day hasn’t filtered through to the rest of the party. All too often the reaction to this existential crisis is to list policies that are popular but small sounding, peppered with soundbites that sound inauthentic and drive voters up the wall.
That reinforces the sense that people don’t have a clear idea of what a Labour government would look like. Or perhaps more accurately, they don’t have a clear idea of what we want a better Britain to look like. UKIP may be a distasteful party in many ways, but they are contesting our national story – and we aren’t even on the pitch. We may talk of “One Nation” but it doesn’t ring true. They go to the barricades crying out for Freedom from Brussels. Now I think that’s nonsense, but if we think that our response can be going to the barricades for the right to see your GP within 48 hours, we’re dead wrong.
What’s needed is – for want of a better word – a narrative. Currently, we lack one, and without it, we’re just shouting piecemeal policy into the wind. We need to contest the national story, explain what kind of Britain we want to build, and preach the virtues of that new Britain at every possible opportunity for the next year.
Rachel Reeves is right, we’re losing our purpose, but what is the Labour Party doing about it? Not enough at the moment, I’m afraid…