Polly Billington: One more heave? Taking the 64 seats to put Labour back in power

Polly Billington

Let me join the queue for a huge wodge of humble pie. I didn’t think this was possible: I didn’t think we could recover without winning back the kind of working class seat, Thurrock, I fought a little over two years ago. We lost Thurrock again, narrowly, and we lost heavily in huge swathe of seats we won in 1997 (all the north Kent seats).

We actually lost some apparently “safe” seats, like Mansfield and Walsall North. But we won Canterbury, Kensington and came very close in Cornwall where the Lib Dem votes seems to have shifted straight to Labour, as it did along lots of the south.

I don’t need to remind anyone we didn’t win. We have a prime minister prepared to establish a coalition with the DUP.

While it is exciting and energising to do so well, especially against the odds and the prevailing narrative, we must understand our achievement and what we need to do next.

We need to gain at least 64 more seats, more than twice what we achieved on Thursday, to get a Labour government with a majority of one.

Holding on to our new voters will be a challenge as we receive greater scrutiny of our platform from being closer to winning. Our resolve to stop Hard Brexit will be important, if not essential.

But can we win without more working class votes? And should we want to? If we are to have a 100-seat strategy for next time, how will we hold on to what we have at the same time as building on it?

As The Observer’s analysis shows, we didn’t do as well among working class voters. Tory switchers and UKIP voters are the key to the next tranche of electoral success. Jeremy Corbyn’s success needs to extend its reach to these voters too. Combining the votes of the furious remainers of Kensington and the impatient leavers of Carlisle is still our biggest project.

Two contrasting seats which may tell the story of our challenge sit right next door to each other. We won Portsmouth South comfortably and well. It’s where the students live and most of the ethnic minority residents. Portsmouth North is different. We held it from 1997 until 2010, so we know we can win, but this time, despite our national vote share and the success right next door, victory eluded us. UKIP collapsed, our vote increased, but so did the Tories and we look as far away from winning this as ever. This is also reflected in the early results of the night, with very small swings to Labour and actual swings to the Tories in the north east. Fewer seats changed hands up north than was feared, but it is clear what worked in some places left traditional working class communities unmoved. Stoke South and Derbyshire North East rejected us.

There are some useful ways of looking at voting intention which doesn’t just cut and dice voters in the usual way and can reveal things about our political landscape.  John Denham has conducted some research that maps voting intention onto national identity. In short, for either of the main parties to win they will need to extend their reach: Tories have most of those who identify as “English” and Labour has most of those who identify as “British”. Without an offer that can bridge these two identities we could have further stalemates in future elections.

Now there are some folk on both the right of the party, like John McTernan, and on the left, like Paul Mason, who have suggested that Labour’s new heartland doesn’t include the traditional working class, who incidentally make up a large swathe of those who identify as English. Forgive me if I scent the whiff of distaste from these commentators. And forgive me if I find the theory distasteful too.

We are the Labour Party. We are for those who labour. This isn’t just about electoral viability: it is a moral question about the role and purpose of our party. Yes we need working class votes to win, and so we will need to look carefully at our manifesto platform, widely praised for attracting so many voters and consider why it didn’t appeal enough to the voters of Portsmouth North, Harlow or Gloucester.

But we also need to ensure, if we are the party of those who work, our platform is one where we don’t just do things for people or to them, but with them. We need to reflect our name and the interests of working people. That means involving working people more and making sure more of them are our representatives. We made some progress on that this time, but not enough.

And that will mean our offer will need to be rooted in the experiences and priorities of working people. There are those who will say that cobbling together this coalition is too difficult. I’m not so sure. There are real shared interests among those who live precariously in the gig economy with spiralling rents, those who juggle the demands of caring for older relatives as well as children, and those who have anxieties about their pension and the security of their home when facing social care costs. The young, the middle aged and the old all experience insecurity: it would make sense to build a story about that. A programme of national renewal could be the kind of progressive patriotic project that would energise our whole coalition.

I have hope that this is possible, because the seeds of this can be found in this election campaign. We got back some UKIP voters for a reason. We even had some switchers straight to us from the Tories. Yes this was a vote for hope. But it was based on a need for security. As someone closer to the campaign than I am wisely said, these voters are “essentially Wilsonians – they want a level of the state as a comfort blanket.” Pledging to nationalise the railways so a ticket doesn’t cost a fortune seems reasonable. In a world of highly segmented social media, there was more of a retail offer to those switchers than anyone in the Westminster bubble ever saw.

If there is a general election soon, the circumstances will be very different: we will be held to greater scrutiny than this time (no one believed we could win – they won’t think that next time), and our opponent is likely to be different – probably better.

So what needs to change? And what needs to stay the same? We will need to be more rigorous and hone our offer so it can withstand the scrutiny we will face. We will need to build out our offer for the “Wilsonians” and remind ourselves how our case against police cuts got traction. We will need to build on Jeremy’s acknowledgement that migration must be managed and put flesh on the bones of a post-Brexit policy. And we mustn’t lose the hope and the understanding of the need for people to choose something bigger and better – a shared national sense of purpose.

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