The recent report from Jon Cruddas confirmed that Labour lost the election because it appeared too anti-austerity, too anti-aspiration and too far in favour of wealth redistribution. The selection of Jeremy Corbyn therefore came as a shock to so many of the political elite, particularly those connected to Tony Blair’s three consecutive election victories.
But with conference season drawing to a close, and Corbyn’s shadow cabinet settling into their new roles, for Labour’s modernisers the time begins for self-reflection and constructive critique.
For most of Blair’s ‘winners’ Liz Kendall was the only rational choice for leader, the ‘change candidate’ who could move the party on beyond the defeats of Brown and Miliband. The trouble was that Kendall never really did represent ‘change’ to most people, adopting an ultra-Blairite position in the first leadership hustings and placing all her hopes on the abstract and rather ‘wonky’ idea of ‘devolving power’. Indeed, Corbyn’s rise was less about left and right – many moderate Labour voters backed him – and more about filing a vacuum of exciting ideas.
But to blame Liz Kendall for gaining just 4.5% of the vote ignores the longer term failings of Labour’s modernisers, bedded in a serious lack of determination to develop a truly post-New Labour vision. There are three important factors that led to this significant credibility deficit.
Firstly, from 2010 we saw a dogmatic refusal by key New Labour figures to critique their party’s time in power. They should have admitted quickly that the party spent too much after 2005 (yet never that they caused the crash) and that their party failed to make globalisation work for everyone. Incredibly, MPs still today try to convince people who’ve lost their jobs to migrants – or felt their wages decrease – that immigration ‘benefits the NHS’ and ‘is a net gain to Britain.’ True, but completely irrelevant to that person’s immediate situation. Of course, New Labour should be proud of introducing the national minimum wage, lifting children out of poverty, equal rights and rescuing our public services, but defensiveness and denial of the party’s shortcomings significantly damaged the integrity of the New Labour argument.
The second failure is the underestimation of just how unpopular and detached the party had become from those it sought to serve. Emily Thornberry infamous ‘three flags’ tweet typified how Labour was being viewed outside London – and not just in working class communities. Too many 1997 firebrands failed to realise that New Labour’s brand sunk with Gordon Brown, and that attitudes were hardening. Even Labour members felt at odds with the so-called ‘metropolitan elite’ who were ruling the party. Travel outside the capital and you’ll find Labour are seen as detached and ‘out of touch’ as the Tories; sneering at those worried about immigration, while gasping and tutting at any slightly inappropriate jokes. That’s not to say Labour shouldn’t lead the way on progressive agendas, but, as the Cruddas study indicates, being deemed too ‘patronising’ hinders the cause. ‘Push but don’t preach’ must be Labour’s mantra.
Which brings me to my third critique; the underestimation of just how much public values, and emotional connection, play a part in today’s political debate. New Labour’s focus on the transactional relationships between market and state left a vacuum around what Britain stood for. In Labour’s absence, and prompted by the 2008 crash, the country decided. It chose a ‘something for something’ approach to welfare, work and immigration, and championed the idea that ‘responsibility’ was as important as ‘rights’, both for government and individuals.
Only the liberal left have resisted the emerging consensus between both the middle and working classes that redistributing the proceeds of a strong economy is no longer enough; the public want to see their values in action in the shape of lower welfare, a reduction of the deficit and stricter rules on immigration. These changes were synonymous with the emergence of identity and belonging as key features in modern Britain. The result of all this change: over 50% voting for the right wing bloc of Tories, UKIP and DUP.
Few Labour modernisers identified the changing trends quickly enough. Tristram Hunt has recently spoken, rightly, of the need to make the modern, globalised, technological world benefit everyone, while understanding that Labour must champion ‘responsibility’ and ‘progressive patriotism’. Yet when Ivan Lewis wrote a similar chapter in 2011 for Progress’s Purple Book, it was one of only a few chapters not to be credited in the conclusion. Blair’s followers weren’t ready for a seismic shift in positioning, only for new policy based predominantly around devolution and regional growth. Both of these are crucial to Labour’s long-term vision, but neither are immediate vote winners, nor provide the big ‘post-New Labour vision’ the party needs.
Corbyn has now won the argument within Labour, while David Cameron has seized the centre ground by identifying the trends outlined above.
I voted for Liz Kendall, but Labour’s modernisers deserved to lose. They must now listen more to the likes of Hunt, Lewis and Cruddas in order to create a fresh, inspirational vision akin to that of 1997. The fightback to credibility begins here.
Joe Jervis is a member of the Young Fabians Executive and tweets @joejervis89