Gordon's shadow against a wall. His shadow still looms over Labour. Photograph: Getty Images
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There are no easy answers to Labour's defeat

The next leader of the Labour Party to win a general election will be the one who owns the scale of the defeat, defines the new coalition and leads the party out of darkness.

On the Friday morning following the election people left home for work and children went to school. A normal day began. But the Labour Party woke to find itself a stranger in a country it did not recognize. Beaten in England, threatened in Wales and destroyed in Scotland, Labour has lost its place in the life of the people.

Another threat now looms. The Party risks avoiding this crisis by distracting itself in a leadership contest.

We can take the safety first route and blame the leader and our failure to prove our economic credentials. Over five years we never matched the Conservatives on the crucial valency issues of trust, credibility and character. We can blame the absence of a political narrative to secure the centre ground. George Osborne’s omnishambles budget sealed Labour’s fate. It reinforced the decision not to build a broad electoral coalition and instead stick with the so-called 35 per cent strategy.

We could decide that this is the sum total of Labour’s crisis and nothing that a new leader can’t put right. But if Labour stays in its comfort zone and refuses to confront the dark places it will be lost.

Outside of metropolitan urban centres the party is often in a state of political decay. Many northern Labour strongholds are political wastelands of dispossession; the only glimmer of hope for many ex-Labour voters is the rise of Ukip. In the prosperous south Labour is like a foreign country. In Scotland it has become the party of Westminster.

Labour is becoming the party of the metropolitan middle classes, public sector workers and black and minority ethnic groups. Across western market economies social democratic parties are shrinking into professionalized elites. In government they were neither very democratic not very social. They tended to be paternalistic and state driven compensating for the system but not reforming it, doing politics to and for people but never with them.  This model of social democracy built in the industrial era has come to the end of its useful life.

History does not guarantee Labour’s survival. That is why an independent inquiry is being launched into why Labour lost. Understanding the nature of our defeat is the first step in the journey of renewal.

In 2012 Labour’s Policy Review was re-booted. Its task was to make policy but also to develop a wider project of political renewal. By drawing on our traditions to redefine the character of Labour we sought a strategic political narrative to frame policy into a compelling story about the country and our future.

Tony Blair provided a good model. He had an intellectual project which was the Third Way, a political project which was New Labour, and an organisational project which was the Clinton campaign machine.

Labour had the beginnings of an intellectual project in One Nation. It gave voice to the right balance of conservative and radical sentiment. But its language of culture and nation did not fit the prevailing politics of transactional policy offers. It was treated like a tactical message rather than a strategic narrative

A political project never took shape. Policies became ends in themselves rather than moves to open up strategic opportunities. Instead of providing an intellectual basis for renewal One Nation ended up as a pre-fix to strings of policy announcements.

The organisational project, energized by Arnie Graf, was the party as a movement. Community organising would renew Labour as the party of work, family and local place and begin the long haul of rebuilding its electoral support. But it was judged against the transactional methodology of vote ID and it met with resistance from the Party machine and was shut down.

When focus groups and polling gave the signal, One Nation was quietly dropped in favour of the ‘cost of living crisis’.

Renewal was the path not taken. We have to take our share of responsibility for this failure. Attempts to link together narrative, policy making and community organising were met with resistance by the bureaucratic apparatus. Innovation was an unwelcome activity in a culture of control and hierarchy. New ideas or practices were excluded or simply absorbed to death.

Against this backdrop the manifesto marked a relative success. It brought to an end the separation of renewal and policy making and a team was created to integrate the work of both.

The result is a manifesto which combines three themes that will endure in the years to come. First it is a politics of work, wages, skills and housing. Second it outlines the changes in how we should govern the country by devolving and sharing power. And third it begins a debate about how we can combine fiscal conservatism and social justice through digital technology, radical reform and investment for prevention. 

It contains strong policies as well as key political faultlines and so it provides a good basis to debate Labour’s political renewal.

Labour needs to now define the social and economic coalitions  that will underpin its political project. The New Labour formula has too little to say to the working class, both culturally and economically. Aspiration and embracing business have become platitudes. The soft left is no answer either. It is confined to specific constituencies and its politics of equality is too abstract and dessicated.

Renewal will have to confront the faultlines or once again Labour will fail: the impact of globalization on the working class, structural reform of the economy, the size and the scope of the state, immigration and wages, and the settlement of four countries in one union. It must fashion a pro-social politics of relationships, family life and neighbourliness  and tackle the issue of social integration. These must all cohere in a story of national renewal especially in England. The country needs a foreign and security policy that defines its place and role in Europe and the world. And we need radical party reform, because if the party doesn’t change it dies a social death.

The next leader of the Labour Party to win a general election will be the one who owns the scale of the defeat, defines the new coalition and leads the Party out of darkness. Those who avoid this task and offer false hope will fail.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear