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.