How Labour can still win

A four-point plan for Labour to build a new coalition of voters

The 2010 election is the first since 1992 when the question "Who will govern?" could be genuinely at stake. The first New Year skirmishes of the long campaign showed the Conservatives surprisingly underprepared, but Labour vulnerable to self-harm.

This Saturday's Fabian New Year conference "Causes to Fight For", with the New Statesman as a media partner, will examine how the left could influence the election-year agenda. Labour is a clear underdog, yet even the current 10-point poll deficit may not translate into a Tory Commons majority. To close the gap, Labour needs to persuade the fragmenting coalitions of voters which brought it three victories that the election result matters.

Can Labour persuade working-class voters that the threat of Tory austerity is sufficent reason to turn out?

And, on the liberal left, will Staggers readers, many of them disillusioned with Labour, feel they have a stake in the outcome? How might Labour seek to re-engage?

Be honest about the record

An honest account of Labour's record on progressive causes would argue that it is substantial but mixed. Labour could not have done a great deal more on international development, but some will never forgive it over Iraq. There was significant progress on pensioner and child poverty, but not in reversing inequality. The minimum wage and more money for schools and the NHS made a difference, but there was an uncritical reliance on finance-led growth.

Ed Miliband has belatedly brought more vigour to a pale green record. Key constitutional reforms -- freedom of information and devolution -- will endure, but a new constitutional settlement was kicked into the long grass. Britain is more socially liberal, with the quiet revolution of civil partnerships, yet arguments about crime, immigration and welfare have often become harsher.

In each of these areas -- excepting civil liberties, the most significant blind spot -- the Conservative leadership has conceded significant territory to Labour's record, rhetorically at least. It is now for Labour to show that its future agenda has substantively more to offer those seeking a fairer, more equal and greener society.

Ensure Labour has a positive message

The focus of Labour's campaign has been on ensuring that the Conservatives face the scrutiny of a would-be government-in-waiting. That the Conservatives are ahead in framing the election year can be seen in how often ministers seem forced to contest Tory narratives -- a debt crisis, the broken society, or the (ludicrous) idea that Labour has declared "class war".

The related charge that Labour has a "core vote" strategy does not stack up: the party was rather more vocal in its condemnation of lack of "fat cat" support for a windfall tax and over "rewards for failure" under Tony Blair in 1997 than it is over banker bonuses now.

The intention is to intimidate Labour into muting its positive argument. This should be framed around the idea that "fairness doesn't happen by chance", and is a question of policy choices not political language, with substantive tests -- in whom we tax and where we spend -- of what a politics of fair chances and fair rewards means as distributional choices get tougher.

Be clearer about spending

But that also depends on Labour opening up the "what not to spend" debate. The Conservative strategy is "safety first and run down the election-year clock". The fledgling centrist Cameronism of 2006-2007 has shrunk to pledging the status quo on the NHS (and development) in exchange for a "doctor's mandate" for austerity and cuts everywhere else. (The opening "Trust Dave" poster is explicit about this offer). Only by being more open about its own future spending plans in the March Budget, however painful, will Labour open up what cutting faster and deeper entails.

Sow the seeds of a new pluralism

Whatever the outcome in 2010, the economic and political crises of the past two years make new thinking necessary on key questions, from a more sustainable "next capitalism" to new ways of doing politics, too.

Both Stuart White on the Staggers and Will Straw on Next Left yesterday made the case for a more pluralist left movement politics.

Restarting these conversations can be difficult. Despite its broad popularity in the mid-1990s, New Labour narrowed into a politics of certainty that repelled those not part of "the project" -- a sharpness reciprocated in critiques from those to its left.

Pluralism needs to be a two-way street. Labour is essential, but probably not sufficient, to future governing projects of the left. Debate is the stuff of politics. One of the first challenges of a new pluralism is whether, where we disagree, we can do so with mutual respect.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs at Next Left

 

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Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.