On Friday Newcastle Labour held its traditional post election do to thank the volunteers who had worked so hard and, in my case, delivered a 9.1% swing to Labour. Waking up in a state of stunned disbelief twelve hours after the exit poll collapsed our dreams, I wondered what on earth I was going to say to them.
Ed’s resignation speech, sad, dignified, honest and moving, helped me begin to understand what was happening. We are grieving. Something died on Thursday night and that something was Ed Miliband’s Labour. It was my Labour too, it was the platform on which I had campaigned and more importantly it was the one I believed in, the one which in proclaiming “Britain succeeds when working people succeed” reflected, I thought, the hopes of both the country and the Labour Movement. I wanted nothing more than to realise that hope under the leadership of a courageous, honest and principled Prime Minister, Ed Miliband.
But the electorate rejected that vision. And so, despite everything we had invested in it, the hard work of the last five years and especially the last five weeks, its apparent healthy pulse in the polls, it died suddenly and dramatically. And so we are right to grieve.
But not for long.
In the short walk from my home to my office on Friday morning I was stopped four times by people desperate to know how they could possibly survive under a Tory Government.
As Ed said, the United Kingdom needs Labour. So whilst Ed’s Labour may have died, we have a duty to return, resurgent.
And of course we are already being told how to do that. A quick hop to the right, a skip to the left, a jump on to the middle ground…
We cannot afford to spend months in intense and intensely indulgent navel gazing, and yet we cannot fall for easy answers.
As someone who worked as an engineer before coming into parliament I propose we borrow from the scientific method. Go back to first principles. Focus on the people we exist for and not our own ideology or baggage. Whatever term we use for who we wish to represent, who are they and what do they want?
As I was campaigning across the country I was struck by the differences between the North East and the South and Midlands. We are a proudly working class region, proud of our industrialisation, of the role of labour (with a small l) in making and building things. That is one of the reasons I was proud to be an engineer.
But I wonder whether that resonates so much around the country. In the seats we needed to win. The North East swung to Labour by 3% on average. The rest of England swung away. What was happening?
I remember when I was first selected one Northumbrian aristocrat told me that I would do alright in Newcastle. ‘It’s an entirely working class city.’ Annoyed, without understanding why, I said we had middle classes too. ‘Not for more than a couple of generations.’ He said dismissively.
I am not saying that the rest of the country has aristocratic aspirations but perhaps in this post-industrial age, where for so many work is a mental rather than a physical activity, where the boundaries of work can be blurred and retirement from work does not mean the end of activity, where there are many who do not or cannot work, and many more whose work is insecure and unrewarding, perhaps people see themselves not as working people, but, perhaps, just as people. And people as the collective noun for individuals rather than the source of democratic legitimacy.
But even so they still need to be protected from ill health, unemployment and vested interests and helped to realise their full potential, regardless of background. They are still stronger collectively than singly, and come together to value each other, be in on social media rather than in working men’s clubs. And they still have much more in common with each other than with David Cameron and his friends.
The rhetoric of austerity offers no hope. The Tories were all too successful in dividing us, the Scottish from the English, public sector workers from private sector workers, the South from the North, immigrants from indigenous, with the crowbar of savage cuts. How can we in return weave the changing social, technological and demographic stories of ‘people’ into our Labour Movement?
I don’t have the answer. But we should not blindly lurch to the right or to the left. We should not go on a mad quest for that mythological middle ground which we captured in 1997 – we can’t win the 2020 election fighting the 1997 one.
The right way for us to respond to Thursday’s defeat is to go back to first principles, focus on the people we seek to serve, those we would have as our masters, so that can help inform who we should have as our leader.