Labour has suffered an electoral defeat so large it calls into question our very existence. The task of every Labour MP who did get elected is now to ensure that we have a future as a viable party of government. Blaming Brexit, the media, or even worse – the voters themselves – for this defeat is a complete abdication of responsibility.
Brexit was exceptionally difficult for the Labour Party. There were only votes to lose whatever position we took. But it is not why we lost so significantly. We lost on the scale we did because so many of our own supporters told us they did not believe we were offering them a credible Prime Minister, and they did not believe our programme was realistic.
There will be some who use this moment to claim that we should go back to the approaches of the past. I am not one of them. I didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn but I recognise his unambiguous rejection of austerity resonated much more with the public than the tepid 2015 manifesto did. In many areas, Labour thinking has been in the right place over the last few years – especially on progressive fiscal rules to run the economy, corporate regulation, alternative models of ownership and the need for a substantial public investment in transport and housing to improve productivity. What’s more, this thinking is aligned with a widespread appetite, even within the business community itself, for a more reforming agenda.
The UK economy does have serious problems. As the IPPR’s commission on economic justice identified, it has stagnated for more than a decade; young people are set to be poorer than their parents; and regional inequality is getting worse not better. The kind of abuse of employees we uncovered at Sports Direct when I was on the BEIS select committee showed just how appalling some of our workplaces are. Many of these problems have been building for several decades. We were, and are, right to say that these problems require fundamental reform, not tinkering.
But there are also lessons we must learn: the lack of an overall narrative meant many of the things we promised just came across as offers of ‘free stuff’. The financial transaction tax – on which 10% of our revenue raising plans were based – would simply not have worked for the same reasons it hasn’t worked anywhere else it has been tried. I strongly support an increase in employee ownership, but it is not realistic to propose the state expropriates 10% of the equity in every large business in the country. This would have led to companies leaving the UK and undermined many of our other plans. And there are strong arguments that the current structure of the water industry works poorly for bill payers, but threatening not to pay market value for nationalisations risked a collapse in international confidence and inward investment – effectively ending any chance of securing the investment needed to tackle the climate emergency.
The test for the next Labour leader will be to show that all these lessons have been learnt. That people must be inspired and be given hope whilst also believing we can deliver on what we’re promising. That it is not a choice between radicalism and credibility – but that both go hand in hand. I think it can be done. And if we are to have a future, it must be.