Six months before the 2015 general election, some of us identified the question of “how can Labour win in England?” as an existential challenge. We saw Labour being squeezed on all sides – by a ruthlessly pragmatic Conservative Party, by a populist UKIP appealing to older voters and the left-behind, by an idealistic Green Party enlisting young and progressive voters. Anticipating wipe-out in Scotland, we argued that Labour needed to present a better offer to English voters.
We were ignored – but we were right. Labour won less than 32% of the vote in England, while the Conservatives received 41% and won more than half as many seats. The Tories made more gains in England than Labour did. Labour did best in safer seats with diverse populations, high levels of public sector employment, average income below £23,000 or higher-than-average unemployment. But in most key marginals where it needed to surge, it suffered.
As the battleground shifts further against it, the Labour Party will never again win a UK parliamentary majority unless it can transform its relationship with English voters. Here is a brief sketch of seven essential steps toward renewal. We have little time, so forgive me: I will be blunt.
1. An English Labour Party must be established, to engage the growing English public and speak to the sense of English identity, interests and community.
2. English Labour must engage on the European referendum. Without a distinctive English Labour voice on this vital issue, Labour risks ceding the ground of patriotism and opening itself up to a lasting undertow. The cosmopolitan case for Europe is insufficient. This imperative makes the founding of English Labour an urgent priority. The NEC should act in the coming month. If it does not, English voices must organize and come to the fore on Europe.
3. English Labour must be a plural party. It must bring together its increasingly diverse constituencies in a bigger tent, and unite them through far-sighted policy, shared values and projects, and lively and constructive discussions.
Labour cannot win in England without the white working class; urban and cosmopolitan progressives; ethnic minority voters; or the striving middle classes in marginals. None of these constituencies can either be taken for granted or ceded. This diverse coalition demands a far more open, pragmatic and plural way for Labour to manage its conversations and doctrines. Whether or not it still aspires to majority rule, Labour must embrace coalition politics in the twenty-first century.
4. English Labour must be an open party. It needs first and foremost to build a deep and authentic conversation with the English people whom it seeks to represent. Labour today is mired in tribal divisions, obsessed with various dying pieties, and failing profoundly to connect with the public. English Labour must turn outward again to understand and reconnect with its fellow-citizens. Strategies like participatory assemblies, online engagement and open primaries will help to renew the party and turn it outward. Only then can it win. Only then will it deserve to win.
5. English Labour must be a networked party. I know from personal experience how platforms like 38 Degrees and Change.org have been able to tap into and channel the democratic energies of millions more people than have ever engaged with the Labour Party in just a few short years. I spent the last week in the US with the Bernie Sanders campaign, which is powered by five million small donors. It has taken networked campaigning to a whole new level by empowering hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Labour’s failure to embrace these twenty-first century politics is chronic and shameful. Unless the party wakes up soon, insurgent forces will take its place. This is not a matter of bolt-on techniques; it is a matter of fundamental political identity and strategy. Labour needs a swift DNA transplant. A new English Labour Party could be its best hope.
6. English Labour must be a populist party. Look how Bernie Sanders has built a left-populism which is both deeply radical and intensely patriotic. The desiccated, technocratic language and behaviour of too many in Labour during the last two decades has left them looking like the few, rather than rooted in the many.
English Labour must be unashamedly popular and populist – engaging with culture, with identity, with anger and passion. It must start to seriously challenge entrenched elites in the City and Westminster. It must move the centre of politics toward us with clarity and conviction, rather than pursuing sterile triangulation or pandering to prejudice.
Populism need not mean dumbing-down, compromise or appealing to people’s baser instincts. At its best, it is one of the most positive and transformative forces in politics. It begins with the apparently simple step of taking the people seriously.
7. English Labour must be a party of radical common sense. Left-right ideological battles tacitly accept the status quo and turn off a wide swathe of the public. Common sense and radicalism are two of the strongest values and traditions of England, and they have never been so needed.
If we can harness these strands together, we can build a new political economy which is on the side of the people, and which deserves their passionate support. We must be passionately for enterprise and human invention. We must reinvent an entrepreneurial and enabling state, and craft a new settlement for care and social needs.
People everywhere deserve a better life. But we have forgotten how to connect with them, how to serve them, and how to win. This is the challenge of twenty-first century politics. And the stakes are very high.
It is increasingly clear that unless we do a better job of rising to this challenge, right-wing populist elites will seize power and hold sway – and we will have let them. They are growing stronger by the day, but they are growing into the space that we have left for them. So let’s take back our democracy and our future. Let’s start today.
Paul Hilder is an organiser and social entrepreneur who has worked with Change.org, Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Oxfam, The Young Foundation, openDemocracy, the Labour Party and other organisations.