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13 May 2015

Labour must avoid exchanging one comfort zone for another

The risk is that the party starts by narrowing rather than broadening its appeal. 

By David Clark

After an election in which Labour haemorrhaged votes to right and left alike, the party should avoid simplistic conclusions about what went wrong. Labour didn’t lose because it moved too far to the left. Nor did it lose because it failed to make an uncompromising stand against austerity. The truth is far more complex and disconcerting. Caught in a pincer movement between the Conservatives and the SNP, Labour managed to seem both too risky and too conventional at the same time. Voters nervous about the economy saw it as a potential threat, while those thirsting for change saw it, at best, as the left-wing of the establishment.

All parties have to strike a delicate balance in their policy platforms, but the challenge for Labour has just become much harder, not least because Scotland and England now appear to want very different and possibly incompatible things. Somehow it needs to find a way to be more convincingly radical while also providing greater reassurance. It isn’t immediately obvious how this balance can be struck or even if the next Labour leader will be prepared to try, given the tone of the debate so far.

Concern rises when I hear Blair-era politicians preaching the gospel of nineties-style modernisation. In the midst of a crisis of conventional politics, their solution is to make Labour look more conventional; a free market, low tax party, house-trained for office by the priorities of the elite and the fear of another defeat. While this would certainly mean giving up on Scotland, I’m not convinced that it would do much to help Labour in England. One of the lessons of the election is that UKIP hurt Labour more than it hurt the Tories because a large number working class voters saw it as a more effective way of lashing out at a system that has left them behind.

The risk is that Labour starts by narrowing rather than broadening its appeal. Leadership candidates spent the weekend making the perfectly sensible point that the party can’t win next time unless it takes votes directly from the Conservatives. Yet none of them, so far, has acknowledged the challenge Labour is going to face in retaining the support it already has. How, for example, do they propose to keep on-board voters who want social democracy and are not prepared to settle for anything less?

The traditional answer would be to offer a few symbolic concessions and point out that they have nowhere else to go. But the “you don’t count because you already vote for us” school of leadership won’t work in the new era of multi-party politics. The old dilemma of what to do when Labour takes you for granted has been answered in Scotland by a mass defection to the SNP. The answer for people in England who feel the same way is less obvious, but it would come – if necessary, through the creation of something new. Progressives need a home. If Labour won’t provide one, they will provide one for themselves, just as they’ve already done in Greece and Spain.

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Senior Labour figures have chided the party for retreating into its “comfort zone” after 2010. Although there is truth in the accusation, many of these critics have their own comfort zone and it carries just as many dangers. It is the belief that all Labour needs to do to build a winning electoral coalition is dust off its 1994-97 campaign plan and tack to the right. The problem is that we already know the consequences of this approach: a reluctance to challenge entrenched wealth and power leading to growing social and regional imbalances, spiralling debt, mounting fiscal pressures, unstable financial markets and, ultimately, economic collapse.

Whatever else was wrong with it, the merit of Ed Miliband’s leadership was its willingness to confront uncomfortable truths about the structural deficiencies of British capitalism that Labour in government ignored at great cost to the country. To abandon the search for a more equitable, productive and democratic economy out of a desire to appear “pro-business” would be a serious error. A Labour Party that went into the next election with the same economic policies that led to 2008 probably wouldn’t get the chance to prove how badly they would fail a second time.

If recovery requires honesty about why Labour lost its economic credibility in office, it demands the same honesty about why it failed to re-establish that credibility in opposition. It is dangerous to talk about the kind of capitalism you oppose unless you also have a clear and positive message about the kind of capitalism you favour. Demonstrating fiscal toughness isn’t something you can leave to the eleventh hour. If you want to radically change the distribution of wealth, you first have to convince people that you know how to create it. Above all, responsible capitalism has to be part of a story about how Britain strengthens its public finances and achieves higher growth, not just about fairness.

Labour clearly can’t expect to win next time by offering the same formula that has just been rejected. But it won’t win simply by repeating the word “aspiration” ad nauseum for the next five years either. The party can’t afford to swap one comfort zone for another. It can only put itself on a winning trajectory if it is able to draw in the strengths and insights of all sections of the party and create a politics that finally manages to transcend the divisions of the last twenty years. It needs a willingness on all sides to uproot old assumptions about everything from policy to the way it does politics and how it relates to society at large. The right person to lead will be the one who rejects easy, off-the-peg solutions and faces up to the seriousness of the challenge Labour now faces.

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