My message to leadership candidates? We did not get it all wrong

Bill Esterson
©️ Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

The majority of party members are supportive of the policies in our manifesto, whether they voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader or not. They believe – and I do too – that public ownership of rail, mail, water and power is something that the people of our country want.

Raising taxes on those who can afford it to pay for better public services is something that resonates with many millions of us across the UK, and within the membership of the party. Social justice demands that we spread the wealth.

And there is more of our message that was well-received. Putting a green industrial revolution at the heart of our plans for boosting the economy is not simply popular because it is the right thing to do – it is the clever thing to do, and the public will support us in that policy area.

As we choose our new leader, those in the race must remember that swathes of our manifesto is still supported by our members and resonates with many voters, who often found our policies attractive, even if they were not prepared to vote for us. Returning to a position where we are not prepared to offer a radical alternative simply won’t wash with our members – and for good reason.

Labour members understand that the success of other western countries is directly related to the fact that they spend far more on health, education and police; that they invest in publicly-owned transport, energy and water networks in their countries; that high-speed broadband for all is vital national infrastructure.

My advice to all leadership contenders is to work with our members. Start with the manifesto and build on what was right under Jeremy’s leadership, as well as reviewing why we lost. The successful candidate has a policy programme to start with. The national investment bank and its national transformation fund is vital to revitalising the nations and regions of our country. It is a proven formula throughout the world. The fact that the Tories say they are going to invest in the North and increase spending on the NHS and police suggests that even they get our message.

Of course the reality of what Boris Johnson will actually do in government will be very different from what he promises. He has a track record of failure to deliver on promises as the mayor of London – police numbers and the garden bridge, for starters.

In 2017 a simpler, clearer version of our programme did resonate far more with the public. We improved our poll ratings during the election, gained seats and denied the Tories a majority. The reaction to this year’s manifesto was different. Let’s investigate forensically what didn’t work this time, but let’s be honest that the sheer volume of policies left many voters confused and doubting our ability to deliver our programme.

The task for our new leader is to embrace the opportunity of learning the lessons of 2017 and 2019. Understanding, at a granular level, what worked in 2017 and what didn’t in 2019 gives the new leader the chance to grow a broad-appeal voter base and to take our members with him or her. It offers a new beginning for us to retain our radical agenda, and convince those voters who have moved away from Labour that we really are on their side.

I would advise the contenders to follow the simple and proven maxim – keep it simple. Pick their key priorities and turn them into five pledges. We know that a small number of promises is effective. We saw that in 1997, and we saw it again this year from Boris Johnson, who had a very thin manifesto but crucially made sure everyone knew what his priority was. Members need to see a clear sense of direction and priority. Unveiling dozens of policies won’t work.

If the candidates want our support in the leadership election, they should spell out what they would do to overcome the problems we faced in this election. Jeremy faced dire poll ratings and was vilified more than any Labour leader in history. It didn’t help that some of the attacks came from within our own ranks. It didn’t help that different factions in the party were more interested in fighting each other than beating the Tories. So what will our prospective new leaders do to minimise the damage done by each of these problems? We need to hear plans on that question.

Whoever is Labour leader will face a hostile media, so we need a communications strategy which can deal with attacks and which keeps our key messages in the public eye. In the past, we had a rapid reaction team ready to pounce on media untruths and false claims. Pushing the truth is not a luxury – it is vital to our success. How will our new leader deliver such a strategy and avoid being demonised in the same way as Jeremy has been? We, as members, need to know that there is a plan at least – even if we do not need to know specific details.

Brexit is a symptom of a divide in our country and in our membership. A very large symptom but a symptom nonetheless. It is not a cause of the divide – that has been created by successive and heartless policies of austerity and classic Tory philosophies of divide and rule. How does our new leader propose to unite those who wanted Brexit done and those who wanted it stopped? I would suggest a start by attacking the real causes of division – social and economic injustice.

Our members want to win an election. They don’t need to be told that we must win an election to end the injustices of growing food bank use and benefit sanctions, of homelessness and rough sleeping, of lengthening waiting lists and patients on trolleys at A&E. We understand that it will take a permanent shift in power and an end to short-termism in our economy for our country to thrive.

They also see that unless we win, the climate action needed will not be taken and they know that Labour’s plans are the only ones that can address these challenges. Most of our members believe that Labour must remain a radical, socialist party and they want to elect a leader who will develop such a way forward whilst learning from the mistakes that cost us dear in the 2019 election.

As I consider who I vote for as leader, I’ll be looking for quality, not quantity. Clarity, credibility and competence – not confusion. I’ll seek acknowledgement of what we got right, as well as an analysis of what we got wrong. I want to hear how we can retain our identity as social reformers who seek radical alternatives to the status quo. It’s what will be needed for a general election – so let’s see such an approach put to the test in the leadership contest first.

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