Gordon's shadow against a wall. His shadow still looms over Labour. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Parliament TV screengrab
Show Hide image

MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.