Mike Penning, the Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, heads for a meeting with David Cameron in Downing Street. Photo:Getty Images
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A candidate's lessons from Hemel Hempstead

Tony Breslin, Labour's candidate in Hemel Hempstead, reflects on what went wrong. 

Last July I had the privilege of being selected as Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in Hemel Hempstead. On Thursday 7 May the best part of a year’s vigorous campaigning alongside a clutch of strong Labour council candidates and a wonderful group of party activists and local (and not so local) supporters came to a shuddering and (for us) heart-breaking halt with the election of Mike Penning as the constituency’s Conservative MP for a third consecutive term. Like many, I have spent the ensuing period wondering just where it all went wrong, wondering how the outcome might be squared not only with the polls but with a doorstep refrain that was anything but an endorsement for Cameron’s Conservatives, wondering how Labour might rise again, and wondering how I and many other unsuccessful candidates might find the courage to fight again; it goes without saying that we must.

Of course, there are those who will identify Ed Miliband’s leadership as the key issue. On the doorstep the Miliband factor was an issue, especially in the earlier ‘long’ campaign and in the final week, but with a leadership election beckoning, I want to contend that Labour’s challenges are more than skin deep. They cut to the core of what a modern (or perhaps post-modern) Labour Party needs to be if it is to once again command mass appeal, not least in aspirational communities such as that found in Hemel Hempstead.

Hemel Hempstead ought to be natural Labour territory. In 1997 and 2001 it elected a Labour MP, Tony McWalter, with substantial majorities and, in the 1970s, Robin Corbett had represented Hemel on the Labour benches. Penning’s majority in 2005 had been 499, making the constituency the third most marginal seat in the UK. However, in 2010 it enjoyed the biggest swing to the Conservatives in the country. Although Labour increased its margin of the vote on May 7th and climbed back from third to second place in the party pecking order, Penning’s seat seems as safe as in 2010. Perhaps of greatest concern, Labour may have lost in the region of 5,000 votes to Ukip and seems to have drawn comparatively little benefit from the collapse in Liberal Democrat support - in spite of the fact that their candidate in 2005 and 2010, Richard Grayson, has since joined Labour’s ranks.  Early in the campaign the common wisdom was that the Ukip bubble was losing air. But the Conservative’s relentless playing of the SNP card probably underpinned what felt like a final week Ukip resurgence, while the Tory offer of a referendum on Europe and Labour’s failure to address concerns - especially pertinent in working class and lower middle class homes - around immigration and multiculturalism helped to explain a five fold increase in the Ukip vote, an increase that left no visible mark on Mike Penning’s majority.

Why do I say that Hemel ought to be natural Labour territory? Hemel Hempstead was one of a clutch of new towns developed in the aftermath of the Second World War. It is a tribute to what can be achieved when shrewd planning is combined with a commitment to deliver social housing of the highest quality, just the sort of social housing that was lost and never replaced in the “right to buy” years of the Thatcher era. Alongside the then brand new M1 motorway, Hemel grew up in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to meet the housing and employment needs of aspirant blue collar workers, who migrated out from London and from further away, notably Wales and the North East. John Goldthorpe’s and David Lockwood’s classic study of post-war Luton car workers, The Affluent Worker, undoubtedly would have included many of Hemel’s then recent settlers.

These Hemel pioneers were attracted by new homes in brand new communities such as Gadebridge, Bennetts End and Highfield clustered around a modern town centre and an attractive ‘old’ town, jobs in emergent industries and the beautiful backdrop of the Hertfordshire countryside. Their courage in uprooting their families and moving to this new town, modeled on the kind of principles that had informed the thinking behind the nearby ‘garden cities’ of Welwyn Garden and Letchworth developed a couple of generations earlier, should not be underestimated. Their story could be that of any migrant community: driven by optimism, aspiration and the promise of a new life, they wanted the very things that Ed Miliband had spoken about earlier in his leadership - the “promise of Britain”, that their children should have a better life than they had enjoyed - the same things that many pundits now see as absent from Labour’s ultimate elec†ion message: aspiration, ambition, hope, optimism.

Herein is the central conundrum for Labour as it ponders its future: how does Labour continue to speak up for the poor and disaffected while also speaking out for those who have benefited from its earlier efforts – notably the NHS and a comprehensive education system that has never been given the credit it deserves for transforming the life-chances of so many young people? A policy offer that speaks for (and to) the poor works when most of us are poor - when society is essentially triangular in shape, it is a viable option. When society is better represented as a diamond, with the majority of us in the squeezed (or un-squeezed) middle, it is not. Ed Miliband may have helped to popularise the phrase, but David Cameron spoke to it. Labour’s commitment to abolish the bedroom tax was absolutely right, but, in terms of numbers, it addressed the needs of a tiny group of voters: you do the maths. And, at the other end of the spectrum, the language of the mansion tax hardly helped - don’t be too successful (especially in the South East) or we’ll whip it back off you. Affordable housing is vital if younger people, in particular, are to get on the property ladder but desirable housing is what people want to progress to, and - especially in this part of the country - the mansion tax sent the wrong message.

This isn’t a sterile debate between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Labour. The truth is that while ‘new’ Labour too often lost its moral compass, especially in the debacle of Iraq, and relied too much on the ‘never, never’ of PFI to renew our public services, ‘old’ Labour talks to a social landscape of blue collar industries and organized Labour that largely no longer exists. In any case, the big unions never did enough for those manual workers employed in small engineering firms, such as those my father - a lifelong AUEW member - worked in for most of his life, or in dispersed industries such as construction or retail – precisely those sectors in which pernicious zero hours contracts now thrive.

Labour must always be the party of social justice, of inclusiveness and of equality of opportunity. But it must also find a narrative that binds those who have ‘succeeded’ to it - a narrative that acknowledges their concerns, celebrates their success and embraces their ambitions and aspirations; these were the issues we found on the doorsteps of Hemel. Organizationally, we need to focus on the concerns and issues of the communities we seek to represent, not supplant these with our own.  Neal Lawson of Compass is right - we need to encourage aspirations that are about values, principles and the kind of society we want to be, rather than just those that are material in nature, but this must not translate into a leftward sneer at the symbols of material success - a good film is even better on a nicer TV; a long journey more comfortable in a better car. The ownership of material goods isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it isn’t a sin either.

Progressively, this means a basis not simply and singularly in what some will see as yesterday’s trade union movement - to which both the Labour Party and working people will always owe an enormous debt - but, as Stella Creasy has argued, across a plethora of community organizations and local campaigns. In Hemel Hempstead, our mantra about “putting the heart back into Hemel” won real support through championing concerns about the rebuilding of a local arts venue, the Pavilion, the failed regeneration of the town-centre, the rejuvenation of the local hospital, and the threat posed to the local greenbelt by developer-driven schemes focused on anything but affordable housing.  It means a willingness to acknowledge fears about immigration, while offering solutions that do not result in a ridiculous retreat to Little Englandism; the truth is that if you’ve spent all of your working life in the Westminster bubble and its associated think tanks, as is the case with too many in our political class, you cannot hope to know how it feels to be undercut by exploited migrant Labour as you scrape for your next ‘job’.

In short, Labour needs to listen to the electorate it has lost – in Hemel that means listening to those former or potential Labour voters who supported Ukip and to Labour supporters who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 but who failed to return ‘home’ on May 7th. Moreover, we need to rebuild our party so that once again a significant number of our political representatives emerge from the geographical and socio-economic communities that they seek to represent, rather than the fast-tracks of internship, the think tanks and the wider Spad-ocracy.  When a group of university drinking club friends sit at the top of one political party and two brothers compete for the leadership of the other, we know that the routes into politics are too narrow.

Such an approach might not just attract those who once voted Labour (‘old’ or ‘new’) back to our ranks. We might also win the support of those voters who ticked the “none of the above” box and stayed at home on May 7th.  In Hemel Hempstead, a third of the electorate did just this, an outcome that was not just a failure for Labour, but for our democracy as a whole; if we are to win in Hemel, and in many constituencies like it, we need to have the courage to champion democracy itself, not to ever again retreat to the minimalist fatalism of target seats and core voters; telling party members to give up on their doorstep and head for the nearest ‘target’ seat is hardly the way to rebuild a mass participation party locally. “Democracy”, as Woody Allen, famously remarked, “is for those who turn up!” In 2020, we must ensure that many more do so.

And this isn’t just about rebuilding the Labour Party. It’s about building a society where citizenship triumphs over consumerism, where the ‘retail offer’ of an emaciated politics is replaced with fundamentally moral choices, where equality and aspiration are bedfellows not alternatives, and where Labour, is once again, the party of the many, not the few.

 

Tony Breslin was the Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate in Hemel Hempstead. In Autumn 2015 he will launch UseYourVote.com.

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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 

***

The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.

***

On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”

***

Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.