Labour can't build "one nation" on its own

Miliband needs an alliance for change - Greens, social liberals and trade unions.

Your intrepid reporter has been clocking up the miles, dear reader. First in Bristol for the Greens, then Brighton for the Liberal Democrats and now just back from Manchester for Labour. I’m not going to Birmingham for the Tories, I may be a soft-left pluralist, but I’m not that soft and I’m too dizzy with fringes, receptions and okay, I admit it, drink.  

So what should we make of the progressive political scene after its conference season?  I came out pretty much as I went in, and as Gramsci told me I should always be, “living without illusions without being disillusioned”. The conferences reflect the party system – they are all in long term secular decline. Physically and emotionally they shrink, fewer people with fewer reasons to be there.  Let's take them in chronological order. 

The Greens are a sunny delight.  Brimming with hope, ideas and democracy (their members vote on everything, all the time), they have answers to the problems of the poor getting poorer and the planet burning – but they have absolutely no strategy for doing anything about it. They have won in one place - Brighton – the only four-way marginal on the planet they love so much.  But the planet's temperature is rising faster than Green Party representation in the political system. I know it’s the voting system. But please, my Green friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not idiots after all.

And the Liberal Democrats? Speaking at three fringe meetings, I witnessed a party whose heart beats to the centre-left but which, up until now, has had little intention of doing anything about it. Of course they have the tough job of sorting out the mess when the public vote for a hung parliament, but they seem incapable of nudging that outcome to be a centre-left coalition, not a centre-right one, next time. They are just sitting tight and hoping, rather than acting.  If social democracy is organised liberalism then they need to get a lot more organised. So, my social liberal friends, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. You’re not idiots after all.

And finally to Labour. Look, Ed's delivery was amazing and authentic.  What we got was him. The land-grab on "one-nation" Tory territory was sensible electoral politics. He has now got to base camp. He no longer has to survive the day. He is at last the leader of the Labour Party.  Now he has to climb the mountain to get to the summit of power and not just be in office.  But he can’t do it alone.  The climb is too long and too tough.  It has three parts. First, he has to start taking the environment seriously after failing to mention it at all.  The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green. So it's not just one-nation but one-planet. Second, the big problem facing the left is the separation of power and politics as capitalism went global and politics stayed local. To win back control, we need one-Europe. Again, there was no mention.

Finally, Ed said on Tuesday that he will prove to a sceptical electorate that politics works.  Like Gordon before him, that is a Herculean task that no one person can realistically take on. Gordon got up earlier and earlier to take on the job and consequently achieved less and less.  Too many in Labour still think that the party and the party alone, can usher in socialism from above.

In the week of the death of Eric Hobsbawm, it really is worth remembering that Labour’s forward march was halted 30 years ago. It can’t be re-booted by one person based on the same broken model.  The class forces, the mode of production and not even the threat of the Soviet Union now exist to give Labour the power it once had. We are one-nation made up of people with differing views and a consensus will have to be negotiated, rather than inmposed. So, my Labour comrades, stop doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.  You’re not, after all, idiots.

A one-nation politics will require an alliance for change. Ed will need Greens and social liberals, he will need stronger unions to predistribute, he will need civil society to battle for communities and equality and he will need networks across Europe to tackle the tax havens and the corporate blackmail of the race to the bottom. To create one-nation is a job far beyond Labour’s shrunken capabilities – though it can and must lead.

And one final thought, before we put the progressive conference season to bed. Labour has been polling anywhere between three to 14 per cent ahead of the Tories in the last few days. We will have a better idea of the lie of the land after next week's Conservative conference. But any sense that the economy is recovering in the run-up to 2015 could, as in 1983 and 1992, see big Labour leads melt away. The Tories will say “look, it took longer and was harder than we thought – because of the scale of the mess Labour left – so don’t let the wreckers back in and instead give us the a mandate to see the job through”.  The centre-left has to start producing an alterative story about the good life and the good society – and above all about a sustainable planet - so that no one wants to turn back to a temporary boom built on a continuing social recession. We need a different vision of what it means to live in the 21st century.

There is much to do and little time, but there is an emerging framework - the game is on.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

"The future of the centre-left will be a synthesis of red and green." Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.