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.