Labour’s historic challenge

Labour will have to defy history to bounce back after one term in opposition.

The consensus is that Labour has adapted well to life in opposition, perhaps too well, some say. Despite the lack of a permanent leader, the party's poll ratings have improved and the leadership contest has not been the bloodbath that some predicted.

But it's worth remembering that in order to return to government at the next election, the party will have to defy history. On the previous occasions that Labour has been removed from government, the party has usually been out of power for well over a decade (the exception is Harold Wilson's victory in 1974).

Here are the numbers:

1931-45: 14 years

1951-64: 13 years

1979-97: 18 years

Labour has a good chance of improving on this lamentable record. The party is more united than at any time in its history, and with 258 seats it has significantly more than seats than in 1983 and 1987. But there remains a lingering fear that the coalition will use its time in power to destory Labour as an electorally viable force.

First, David Cameron's plan to reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent will hit Labour hardest by scrapping seats in Wales and industrial areas that have suffered population flight. Of the 50 seats likely to be abolished, 40 are Labour-held. It is for this reason that you will not meet a Labour MP prepared to support the boundary changes included in the Electoral Reform Bill.

Second, the coalition's plan to revisit the vexed issue of party funding could lead to the introduction of a cap on trade union donations to Labour. With the unions responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party in 2009, such reforms could leave Labour bereft of the funds the party will need to run a successful election campaign.

Finally, were Scotland ever to opt for independence, although that now seems only a distant possibility, 41 of the 59 Westminster seats that would be automatically lost are Labour-held. It's worth adding that, in many of the seats that Labour lost in 2005, the party is now in third, not second, place.

So the next leader will face great challenges, but also the opportunity to achieve what almost none of his or her predecessors has managed to do: return Labour to power after one term.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition