It has taken Boris Johnson less than a week to abandon his commitments to raising the minimum wage, protecting labour laws and safeguarding child refugees. He adopted the language of the left with talk of revolution, change, anti-elitism, ending austerity, and investing in public services. But the wolf in sheep’s clothing is quickly being exposed.
The extent of the betrayal goes beyond removing the protections and rights of British people to make us more attractive to US trade negotiators – he has chilling plans for the judiciary, removing accountability in parliament, and assault on voter rights with an ID bill that will suppress the vote of the poor and minorities. They are designed to curtail the very democracy he claimed to champion – all to consolidate his grip on power.
After last week’s defeat, Labour voters, members and activists could be forgiven for putting politics in a box, wrapping it up and hoping it gets lost under the Christmas tree. But Labour has an urgent task: to ensure we look, act and sound like a credible alternative to the Tories and take advantage of ‘buyer’s remorse’, which is likely to hit quickly as Johnson’s promises unravel.
And we don’t need to wait for five years. The regional mayor elections are just around the corner in May 2020. The fight back can begin with removing the Tory West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, who has very much posed as an independent – always careful to play down his Conservative Party association. He centred his 2017 campaign on a promise to end homelessness, but has overseen a doubling of it. He never challenged austerity or stood up against government policies that damaged the area. Going forward, he certainly will not be someone to hold Johnson to account and fight for the people of the West Midlands.
A Labour West Midlands mayor is therefore vital. A Labour mayor will demand that the West Midlands benefit from Sajid Javid’s apparent loosening of the purse strings. And where the Tory promises are broken, we have to use that platform to tell working-class voters the truth. West Midlands Labour members now have to decide whether it will be Liam Byrne, Pete Lowe or myself who will have the honour of being the party’s candidate.
The tone of this internal contest, as well as the national leadership election, will have a direct bearing on the ballot box. We have to learn from our mistakes during the general election, but months of bloodletting and playing the blame game will be a huge turn off for voters. The Tories have already been campaigning, as they view the West Midlands mayoralty as the jewel in their crown. They have the benefit of incumbency, and the selection of the Labour candidate being postponed due to the snap general election has reinforced that advantage.
I am hoping that the positive exchange of ideas and creating exciting plans for our region’s future, without personal attacks and smears, will set the right example for the leader and deputy leader elections. It should also be a foundation for the unity needed to beat the Tories here in the West Midlands. The right does not have a majority either in the Midlands or the country more generally. However, the Tories have managed to unite various right-wing factions behind them during elections, and benefitted from the the progressive vote being split across parties.
The coming mayoral election in May will be the first in years where Brexit will not dominate the campaign and that can only be good for Labour. Anyone who knocked doors during the election will know that the party’s position on Brexit was a problem. The Tory policy could be boiled down to three words – ours needed a voter prepared to listen and a door-knocker on top form. We promised, two years ago, to respect the referendum and a large percentage of our working-class Leave voters did not forgive us for going back on our word.
But we were not the only party to get it wrong. The Liberal Democrats’ promise to revoke Article 50 only appealed to the most ardent of Remainers, as it went against the British sense of fair play and led to their nightmare election night. Those voters who gave me the time on the doorstep could be swayed when asked whether Brexit was more important to their life than the effects of austerity on the NHS, schools and crime. But sadly elections are won by the party whose message cuts through to a large portion of the electorate who are not interested in nuance or shades of grey.
It is true that perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn were a problem on the doorstep. Every Labour leader has to factor in opposition from the media, but no leader had such a sustained barrage of smears, lies and skewed coverage than our outgoing leader. It was as if the media could not forgive him for his popularity surge in the 2017 campaign, which they had totally missed.
It has been heartbreaking to see such a decent man misrepresented on a daily basis. And their relentlessly negative Corbyn campaign in print, TV, online and radio worked. Several voters repeated certain negative media headlines which had been churned out, ad nauseam, both in the run-up to and during the election period. But such was the barrage, many voters I spoke to could not give an actual reason why they didn’t like him. And I came across two men who actually believe he wears an “I love the IRA” t-shirt! It is a tragedy that such a good man was successfully demonised by our media. It took time: he was pilloried between 2015 and 2017 but still managed to buck the negativity. By 2019, however, it had become impossible. The media will not have had the time to do that to Labour’s mayoral candidate.
After a big defeat, it is only natural for people to want to rip everything up and start again, but it is too simplistic and the danger is the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater. Corbyn’s legacy is that he dragged the Conservatives and Johnson kicking and screaming out of their austerity ivory tower. All those very un-Conservative campaign spending promises were because they were spooked by the popularity of Labour’s 2017 manifesto.
Another positive from the campaign is the unprecedented mobilisation of such a wide range of volunteers for Labour. I campaigned for Labour candidates across the Midlands, taking teams to leaflet and door knock. Everywhere we campaigned I was impressed by the hard work of local members, young and old, and activists from all over the country who were enthused by Labour’s positive vision. We cannot afford to let them just melt away until the next general election.
In so many constituencies, the Tories were nowhere to be seen. They are the few, for the few. They could afford millions of direct mail deliveries, while Labour had to rely on volunteers delivering leaflets in the rain, wind and sleet. We need to harness the passion of our members and activists if we want to win in May. I will place them at the centre of my campaign. Andy Street has been busy filling his campaign’s coffers, and is already believed to have raised £3m, but if we can direct our human resources properly then he will not be able to compete with our people power.
We need to get the West Midlands moving through imaginative and transformative policies. We need a 21st-century public transport system which everyone can rely on. Labour has proved that, even under a Tory government, it can make a difference. Unlike West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street, Labour’s Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has reduced homelessness. We can also learn from the Preston model of using the better procurement for municipal socialism.
We will use every lever of power to help businesses in the West Midlands. Andy Street knew full well the danger to jobs a hard-Tory Brexit will bring, but has not offered any clarity to worried businesses. He will simply follow Johnson’s line. We will give local businesses every help possible. No-one knows Brexit’s consequences but it is safe to assume there will be job losses, and while the Tories will be busy deflecting blame we will be doing everything practically possible to keep local people employed. The business community have warned the Tories about the dangers of a no-deal Brexit to the economy and were ignored – we will work with the West Midlands business community to help pick up the pieces.
Labour’s Green New Deal can be implemented at a regional level. Working with communities, businesses and trade unions, we will create good quality jobs and apprenticeships to provide much needed affordable homes while enacting practical steps to protect the planet. This initiative can provide some much-needed stability and security in the volatile time ahead, while tackling the urgent issues of the day. The inspiring campaigning of young people on climate change issues is something all adults can learn from, and Labour’s Green New Deal will seek to earn the trust, participation and mobilisation of tens of thousands of local young people.
There is no reason why an administration cannot protect workers’ rights, pursue a green agenda and also be pro-business. We will prove it can be done. Running on a positive social agenda with an economically credible manifesto will appeal to the progressive majority of the electorate who, under the mayoral contest’s version of proportional representation, will have more of a say than in our national first-past-the-post system. The fact is that in the general election – even with all the lies and establishment support – the Tories only got 2,000 more votes than Labour across the region. Johnson’s party secured 527,000 votes against Labour’s 525,000.
There is everything to fight for. Like the weather, it might seem as if Labour is in dark, cold and unforgiving times. It is tempting to hibernate. But seasons move on. The seeds of our transformative vision have already been sown with with the back-breaking work of our brilliant members and activists. These need to be nurtured, not abandoned. The prize of a Labour victory in spring will represent a blossoming of hope and opportunity not just for the West Midlands but for the nation.