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  1. Politics
1 July 2015

Things could still get worse for Labour

Labour can either try and win an election, or host a pretty convivial set of party conferences and left-leaning summits over the next five years, says Richard Carr.

By Richard Carr

To reverse Mark Twain, reports of Labour’s demise may have been greatly under-exaggerated. With the exception of Tony Blair, Labour has not secured a stable parliamentary majority since before England won the football World Cup. Equally, those born in May 1997 can now legally buy a pint. And at the next election the youngest voters will have no great memory of a Labour government save, perhaps, the financial crisis. In short, there is no guarantee whatsoever of Labour’s ongoing relevance in the years to come.

So what happens next is pretty crucial. To get to the bottom of this the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University has been surveying councillors in key marginal constituencies on the leadership, policy and beyond. The majority of these responders were Labour members, but we also polled smaller samples of Tory and SNP councillors for their views. The results are rather illuminating.

Whilst six in ten Labour councillors concede that unless ‘drastic changes’ are made the party ‘is likely politically finished for a generation,’ the most desired policies amongst those we offered were a return to 2008 deficit financed infrastructure investment, a 50p top rate of tax (1 in 5 wanted 60p or more), legislation to introduce a mandatory living wage by 2025, and a pro-EU line regardless of the outcome of David Cameron’s ongoing negotiations.

One or two of those I, and doubtless many, would get on board with to varying degrees. Ed Miliband certainly wasn’t wrong on everything. But the collective picture is a desire for continuity Ed in most things. As one Labour source told George Eaton, ‘for all the sound and fury we are all Milibandites now on the economy.’ All except the majority of the electorate, presumably.

This is no doubt why Andy Burnham (35.7 per cent) and Yvette Cooper (30.1 per cent) have garnered the most support amongst councillors we surveyed. One more heave, Milibandism with a human face, and Labour will be back in power, or at least something much closer to it.

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For all Jeremy Corbyn has certainly livened up the contest, only Liz Kendall seems to combine a radically different agenda with the actual possibility of being elected in 2020. But the big question is can she win the endorsement of her party? Certainly her (Ed) Balls to the wall approach is a pretty high wire act, and she remains the candidate our Labour responders would least want to see elected leader. Indeed, although not exactly the Kendall line, less than one in ten Labour councillors told us they would endorse the prospect of ‘new free schools where they can help provide additional places.’

Still, perhaps more encouragingly for her, just over half (50.5 per cent) Labour councillors backed the view that ‘we shouldn’t be dogmatic about the state’ compared to the 44.6 per cent who ‘thought the state should be bigger than it is now.’

Cards on the table. I agree with much of what Liz Kendall says. Labour shouldn’t be blinkered on free schools, particularly (though not exclusively) when it comes to University Technical Colleges. It should be looking to devolve elements of the Work Programme to council and sub-regional level (as I’ve argued for Localis). And any responsible government should be taking the Keynesian approach of turning on the taps in times bad and being more controlled in times good.

Crucially, Liz Kendall seems to get that victory is usually won by placing a giant flag on your opponent’s turf. If history is anything to go by it can be symbolised by direct defection (Reg Prentice to the Conservatives in the late 1970s, Alan Howarth to New Labour in 1995). It can be achieved through counter-intuitive policy (Brown’s targeting of inflation in the 1990s as Labour’s big enemy and pledging to maintain the 40p top rate). It can also happen through the osmosis of coalition (true of the Tories after the Great War, also somewhat of Labour’s victory in 1945 after serving with Tories like Rab Butler and Liberals like Beveridge). Perhaps there is some play here – over 45 per cent of Labour responders we asked declared they would be ‘prepared to work with the government…on areas of public policy that have caused long term problems’ such as housebuilding and skills. Labour must oppose the egregious, but opposing everything out of hand is the road to nowhere.

Importantly, the type of political crossover Labour needs rarely happens through talking to oneself about various forms of factionalism. The left’s recent drift into Top Trumps identity politics on race and gender is the opposite of a One Nation approach which, after all, is supposed to be predicated on inter-group cooperation.

Now there is, I accept, a tension here. Labour must represent the vulnerable and the marginal. Economically, there are correlations between race, gender and wealth. But these are fuzzy not uniform and Labour’s brush strokes are just too broad at present. Generally the Tories were (more) able to address individual’s aspirations in the run up to May, whereas Labour continued to address voters as amorphous blobs who went crazy for talk of ‘discourse’ and ‘dialogue’ on the #labourdoorstep. ‘Proper conversation’ has become to Labour as ‘Jiminy Jillikers’ was to The Simpsons’ Milhouse: the words have lost all meaning.

To return to the above point about the living wage, I largely agree with the over eight in ten councillors who prioritised this. And if, as is likely, the majority of beneficiaries of action on this are women then fantastic. Such direct measures which have a demonstrable impact on normal people’s lives are welcome.

But the internal harmonisation of Labour through the balm of Harmanisation is over, or should be. It had positive outcomes for sure, but it has proved as time limited an electoral aid as Thatcher’s right to buy. Many people either side of Hadrian’s Wall now prefer the concrete positions (better or worse) of women like Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May rather than appeals to tokenism. For white working class men this agenda has always stuck in the craw and now Nigel Farage offers an outlet. The left (rightly) accused Thatcher of having atomised the UK in the early 1980s. Through benign intention Labour are getting close to doing similar today.

As it happens, the three candidates that most impress me across the two contests are Liz Kendall, Stella Creasy and Caroline Flint. But their gender is an utter irrelevance in that equation. Like many, I may or may not think “wouldn’t it be nice to have a female Prime Minister,” but I’ll definitely think “I want a Prime Minister who generally accords with my views and will act in their direction.” Literally, that’s it. Voters aren’t voting for a concept, but competence and delivery.

At present it’s not just the specific policy that’s off but a weird disconnect where politicians don’t seem to think like functioning adults. I’ve written before that the broad Westminster left increasingly resembles LinkedIn. There’s probably some truth in that but at the same time it’s a deficient theory in one key manner: LinkedIn is about extending one’s network and reaching out to others. In actual fact Labour is more like a modern football club – its leading lights are out of touch with their supporters but they still expect residual blind loyalty anyway. Well, we will see.

Labour, as the councillors we surveyed indicate, needs drastic change. Personally I think Liz Kendall is best placed to deliver this but, crucially, the data suggests I’m not alone. Of the Conservative councillors in key seats we surveyed it was Liz Kendall (38.1 per cent) not Andy Burnham (31.3 per cent) who they felt would be the biggest threat to Tory victory in 2020.

Labour can either try and win an election (our data indicates Caroline Flint would be more useful a deputy leader than Tom Watson in this regard too), or host a pretty convivial set of party conferences and left-leaning summits over the next five years. They’ve ‘let Miliband be Miliband,’ it’s time for something different.

Richard Carr is a Lecturer in History at the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU), Anglia Ruskin University. The LHRU has today released polling on the Labour leadership. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the LHRU, the kind councillors of all parties who took time to answer the survey, or Anglia Ruskin University.

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