Winning in the 2020s: Labour Faces a Huge Challenge

Michael Calderbank previews The Challenge for Labour, the new report from Ian Lavery MP, Jon Trickett MP and Cllr Laura Smith which will be published after a Facebook Live launch at 7.30pm this evening [Thursday 12 November]


Too many of the moratoriums held after the 2019 election saw pundits from the political commentariat filter the available evidence to support their pre-conceived conclusions.   Opinion polling is no substitute for qualitative analysis based on extensive listening to voters from these disaffected communities.  To their credit  the “No Holding Back” project set up by Ian Lavery, Jon Trickett and their former colleague Laura Smith (previously MP for Crewe and Nantwich) have conducted an extensive tour of CLPs across the country, together with (both affiliated and non-affiliated) trade union branches, youth sections, affiliated societies, and other grassroots campaigners, to hear directly from people who related their own experience of how Labour is perceived to have drifted away from its base.   The findings have been published this morning in the report The Challenge for Labour, together with a series of recommendations about how we can start to address the issues raised.  It’s well worth a read.

Everyone accepts that the Labour Party now has a mountain to climb, such was the crushing nature of the defeat in 2019.   While his critics have tried to pin the blame on the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the reality is that support in Labour’s heartlands has been decaying over a period of decades.   Five million Labour votes were lost under the period New Labour were in office, culminating in Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010.   This trend continued under Ed Miliband’s reign, where the party was nearly wiped out of Scottish MPs.   Over the years, working class voters outside of the big Metropolitan centres have increasingly drifted away.   The problem was compounded in 2019, but simply changing the guy at the top does little to address the structural reasons for this decline.

Given that 52 of the 54 seats Labour lost outside Scotland voted to Leave in the EU referendum of 2017, the issue of Labour’s positioning over Brexit is rightly faced head-on.    The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and ultimately a section of Corbyn’s own Shadow Cabinet (particularly those with London and other Metropolitan constituencies), ended up echoing the old Blairite mantra that the disaffected working class voters had “nowhere else to go” in a General Election, while the threat of liberal Remainers peeling away was judged to be the more urgent challenge.  As it was, people were left feeling that the Labour leadership was a force more interested in protecting the status quo than making change happen.   Corbyn’s much-vaunted “straight talking” couldn’t survive the pressures of an uneasy policy compromise, and he appeared unable or unwilling to “level” with the voters.

Isn’t this all water under the bridge?   Those responsible for supporting the failed strategy have been quick to adopt the “nothing more to be said – let’s move on” strategy.  The urgency of the COVID crisis has given this a degree of plausibility.   Yet, the sense of disdain which Leave-voting communities felt from the Labour leadership won’t be so easily forgotten, particularly as the new Leader was Brexit Minster happy to “shift through the gears” towards embracing a second referendum.    Those who rightly criticise Donald Trump’s refusal to respect the outcome of an election, ought to reflect on their own propensity to cry foul and demand voters think again.

A key question, then, is why didn’t more people at every level of the Party and trade union movement – from the PLP, TUC leadership, local councillors and a chunk of the membership base- see how disastrous the Second Referendum policy would prove with so many areas of the country outside big cities and university towns ?

Here, we have to face the gradual decay of the links which embed working class institutions and their democratic structures in their wider communities.  This is partly a matter of economic and social change since the onset of Thatcherism – with the decline of heavy industry and mass manufacturing – and the forms of collective organisation that developed out of them.   The values of solidarity, civic pride, mutual support and community empowerment which developed out of these contexts remain from having been eliminated, but at the same time the institutional resources which sustained them have been seriously eroded.

The fragmentation introduced by an increasingly service-based economy  and casualised labour market saw people increasingly forced into low-paid and insecure jobs, a trend which only accelerated after the 2008 financial crisis when austerity policies ripped through public sector employment.  A certain nostalgia for a world where people looked out for each other, and had a sense of pride in their own communities and ways of life, is entirely understandable

The populist far right have tapped into a sense of cultural and economic dispossession, and appealed to a powerful but ethnically exclusive notion of identity.   In the absence of structures which allow for a plausible sense of collective agency or empowerment, nostalgia risks becoming the basis for an angry rejection of mutual responsibilities and allows for aggression to be directed towards outsiders who are wrongly perceived as threatening an already beleaguered sense of social self-worth.    What concrete steps might we take in order to renew the best aspects of our labour movement traditions such that they feel relevant to working class communities across the country in the 2020s?

The report has some valuable recommendations in this direction, but before we get to a discussion of such steps, it’s important to clarify what is not being said.   The authors’ previous “Northern Discomfort” report highlighted the dangers of directing policy towards the Westminster bubble or the political priorities of the liberal parts of north London.   This was not to suggest that issues at play in Bolsover or Burnley weren’t also present in Bournemouth or Basildon.   Nor is it to suggest that we should perform a 180 degree turn in order to appeal only to the northern working class and abandon middle class voters or everyone living in the South.    Obviously, that would be ludicrous and just as disastrous.  We mustn’t become trapped in a “progressive” comfort zone, only talking to urban graduates.   But nor can we afford to neglect the issues which saw Labour win significant support among the BAME working class.

Equally pointless would be to revert back to a politics governed by the methodology of market research – simply identifying what people would like to hear and designing a political offer which can be flogged on the doorstep.     The job of a political leader is not just to conform to the existing currents of opinion so that the centralised comms begin to “land”.  The Challenge to Labour respondents complain about the sterile nature of what passes for Labour’s electoral campaigning methods, aimed merely at identifying voting intentions and delivering leaflets, rather than actually connecting with the needs of people at anything other than an instrumental/transactional level (“if you vote us back in we’ll do x, y or z”).

Despite the rhetoric of Labour “becoming a social movement” the reality often felt otherwise – campaigning was still primarily about fighting the next round of elections, and nothing much else.   The leaked report on the 2017 election campaign reflects the experience of many activists – who found that Labour’s regional offices and organisers often seemed to be operating a campaign to protect critics of the Labour leadership rather than win Labour the election.   At the best of time, CLPs are given little support from the national and regional party beyond directives or reprimands.

After an internal battle the pioneering Community Organising Unit was established precisely to help party activists reach out and deepen links with local civil society leaders not previously engaged with Labour.  This provided an important corrective to an narrow short-term electoralism, but needed to be properly integrated with the priorities of the party as a whole – rather than be seen as an exotic pet project which threatened to distract from keeping up rates of voter ID.

Similarly, for a number of the respondents, the experience of Labour councils in heartland areas was often perceived negatively, as though the councillors too often came across as a remote establishment, only in it to make a living for themselves.   Such a perception might well be unfair, but when people only hear from the party in the context of pre-election campaigns or voter ID interactions it is not hard to see why people might assume this. Negative perceptions were reinforced by the experience of Tory austerity, the results of which were often assumed to be further proof of Labour neglect.  There needs to be a gear-change in the way Labour-led local authorities lead communities in resisting cuts, and in demanding the resources that are needed.

Given their experience of being failed by the political system over decades, people are understandably cynical when candidates promise to “fight for” residents on the council.  Political promises – even radical policies which are feasible and deliverable – can just sound like empty rhetoric if people feel they are being “played”.   We need to rethink and replace the underlying Fabian assumption that “we” are professional policy experts with progressive values who will do things on behalf of the people who elect us.  Instead, we need to root socialism in the collective activity of ordinary communities organising around the needs they identify for themselves.   The role of party structures, representatives and paid officials should be one of empowering the grassroots to improve their localities, not taking votes for granted or using activists as a leaflet distribution network.

It’s not as if our communities don’t have acute needs.   The COVID crisis has left already battered high streets facing an economic hurricane – with small businesses, independent retailers, pubs and cafes going out of business.    Families face a Christmas where feeding their families will be a challenge, let alone buying all the toys kids put on their lists to Santa.    Many are struggling to pay the utility bills, or even keep a roof over the heads at all.    The crisis has also proved the tremendous value of keyworkers, and the ability of people to look out for another by organising mutual aid groups, food banks, and other forms of essential help.

We need to be there for our communities at this moment of need.   Broxtowe CLP rented a premises on the local high street and turned it into a community centre, food bank and organising hub rolled into one.   If this model is to be replicated, we’ll need the Party and the unions to invest in resourcing community organising.   But we’re not charity workers.   We need to reintegrate political education into our grassroots activity – not patronising people or presenting them with high-flown lectures loaded with academic jargon, but steps which help people understand the social and economic forces at work today, the lessons of history, and the implications for what we can do to make real change in peoples’ lives.    This is not just a task for the party, but also for the wider trade union movement.

Does the present leadership grasp the extent of this “challenge”?   Let’s hope they read this report and take note.   The only way of getting rid of the Tories is to elect a Labour-led government.    Walking away just makes this prospect more remote.   But at the same time, we need the Party to wake up to the need for radical structural change – not just in what we say, but in what we do and how we do it.