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Labour's mess is the predictable result of a leader and philosophy hated by voters

I lost my seat in December. As the party elects a new leader, it must bury Corbynism – not just Corbyn, says the former MP for Sedgefield

Who would have believed it possible that one day, four of the seven parliamentary constituencies in the County of Durham would have Conservative MPs? A political lifetime ago the thought was a Conservative pipe dream. The thought never even passed through Labour minds. There was no need for such a mindset amongst Labour Party strategists. Why should there be? Ever since 1919, when Labour took control of the county council for the first time and every time since then, Durham had always been a Labour heartland.

But the day did come. On Thursday 12 December 2019, the Tory dream came true. The 2019 general election wasn’t like any other in the past 80 years. It was also like no other because it was an election fought on two days, in two different years.  The 2019 general election truly was a game of two halves, because 2017 was unfinished business.

The first half was played on 8 June 2017. Labour wasn’t expected to do well. The party’s manager started the match behind in the popularity stakes. The Conservatives played terribly, but stayed ahead. Labour left the pitch content with the half-time score, even though we were losing. Some of the fans were going wild and even thought Labour had won. 

But we hadn’t. The omens for what was to come next were already there. The woman who I met on the street outside the Newton Aycliffe polling station, at the end of the first half, provided the grimmest warning: “I voted for you, Phil, but get rid of him.” The “him” was Jeremy Corbyn.

Many of us predicted the defeat in the first half of the match would be severe and that Jeremy Corbyn would be gone. Due to the Conservative Party’s terrible election campaign, Labour’s defeat wasn’t severe, and he wasn’t gone. It was a normal Labour defeat and therefore seen as a victory. There was no need to change manager, formation or tactics.

We entered the second half of the match two years later with the same manager. So convinced was Labour of its own moral certainty and ultimate victory we played only on the far left of the pitch, leaving the rest of the field vacant.

The Conservatives used their half-time break wisely. Even though they were ahead, they changed their manager and did what they do best: kept their focus on winning. Confident, they goaded Labour into an early start. Labour obliged.

At full-time, the inevitable happened. The omens found form in a Conservative majority of 80. We hadn’t listened to the voters. We hadn’t got rid of him. If there was one issue on the doorstep it was Corbyn, his worldview and his fantasy football manifesto.

Labour has lost four elections in nine years. Some may blame the wrong policies, the media, even the electorate. Whatever the argument to explain Labour’s defeats, it seems always to be drawn from the deep well of victimhood, because it’s always someone else’s fault. But it isn’t. It’s ours. The Labour Party.

Others may say, even though we have recently run down the left wing of the electoral pitch like school children chasing a ball, we weren’t left enough. Whether we were or whether we weren’t, it can be said with a high degree of certainty that in 2019 the Tories played a more direct game. They knew what they wanted and what they were doing. We didn’t. We were played off the pitch.

After all these years in Labour politics, I’ve come to realise one thing about the party: it’s the vainest of political organisations. The party’s virtue signalling, under Corbyn especially, is so developed that Labour has its own semaphore no one but the initiated understand. The electorate are turned off. The bits they can decipher, they don’t like. Some of the translation they find offensive and just plain nasty.

 A political party that cannot set vanity aside will only look in the mirror and elect the wrong leader. It started with Ed Miliband. “You picked the wrong brother,” is the message still received loud and clear on the doorstep. Back in 2010, I remember the intake of breath by the delegates in the Labour Party conference hall as Ed scraped home, snatching the leadership away from his brother. As we dragged ourselves to our feet to applaud the new leader, there was much looking at the floor as David Miliband, with the haunted look of defeat in his eyes, congratulated his brother. Members and MPs alike were left thinking, “What have we just done?” I could feel any prospect of a Labour victory at the next election falling through our fingers.

As for our supporters back home, the people who really matter, they were pointing to the brother they wanted and we gave them the other one. They were beginning to see Labour as not serious about winning and not serious about them. We were becoming a joke. When we gave them Corbyn it went beyond a joke. They thought we were taking the piss. It’s asking a bit much of the electorate to take the Labour Party seriously, if the Labour Party isn’t prepared to do the same.

Corbyn brought a worldview alien to the Labour Party. A worldview that belonged on the fringes. With his victory, that worldview became centre stage and all those who lived on the fringes with him found their home centre stage too. The pseudo-Marxists, Bennites, anti-Semites and cultists all thought it was their turn to run Labour. So they did. The doors were flung open to people in their image, creating a dystopian Labour Party, not recognisable to many of its existing members, never mind our supporters. Some of the zealots I came across, if you uttered one word of doubt about the competence of their leader you felt as though, if it were five hundred years ago, you would have been burnt at the stake. Such was the fundamental intolerance of the cult around him.

The cult’s only mission was to take control of the Labour Party. The priority was not the communities we serve, but the cult’s hard-left ambitions. It was nothing to do with Labour voters, but all to do with finding a home for their vanity project. Tasteless and selfish, their project is on the verge of destroying the Labour Party.

From 2010, the Labour Party started to make the cardinal error of deliberately distancing itself from the outgoing Labour government, a direction the Corbyn regime continued to pursue. The strategy was a fundamental error of judgement. If the Labour Party is not prepared to defend Labour governments, no one else will. If the Labour Party doesn’t believe Labour governments are worth having, why should the electorate? The Conservative Party doesn’t hold such a perverse view of Conservative governments. They instinctively raise what they see as their successes without pointing to their failures, of which there are many. Labour does the opposite and ignores the successes, of which there are many, points out the failures and calls them betrayal. The Conservative Party unfortunately understands the importance of government, a fundamental still to be learnt by today’s Labour Party whose sole purpose should be to form a government.       

The Corbynistas determined Year Zero was to start with Corbyn. Past Labour governments weren’t really Labour. They were troubled times that interrupted the purity of opposition. Labour voters had a habit of getting it wrong and could be a disappointment. There was no need for Corbynistas to listen to them; they needed to listen to the Corbynistas. Corbynistas knew what was best.

Any criticism of the leadership was the fault of the mainstream media. The print media has always held an anti-Labour bent, but has never stopped the election of Labour governments in the past. The lesson is: if you believe the press is not your natural ally, don’t make it easy for them. If you don’t want the press to write you are a terrorist sympathiser, don’t lay a wreath at the grave of a terrorist. If you don’t want the press to write you are a friend of Hamas or Hezbollah, don’t call them your friends. If you don’t want the press to write you associate with the IRA, don’t associate with the IRA. If you don’t want the press to doubt your patriotism, don’t give Russia the benefit of the doubt over the Salisbury poisonings or take money from Iranian state media. If you want the press to highlight your aversion to antisemitism, don’t share a platform with known anti-Semites and defend antisemitic murals.

Only Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters can do all these things and think they can get away with them. They believe they are the most morally centred, so stand rigid in their certainty. They believe they are the most principled, so they occupy the highest of ground. The truth is that they are not virtuous, nor moral nor principled. They are vain, self-centred and narcissistic. If they were virtuous, if they moral, if they were principled, they would know the purpose of the Labour Party is to become a Labour government. Without achieving power, Labour’s promised land is a ruined city on a barren hill top, the land neither green nor pleasant. Corbynistas may feel pure and sleep a contented sleep when they go to bed at night, but the people outside their window will be wondering how they can sleep so easily while the need for food banks grows by the day.  

Over Labour’s 120-year history, the party has seen itself as the social conscience of British politics. In a democracy, a social conscience is only nice thoughts and warm words without a government to make them a reality. Becoming a government requires discipline: discipline Labour has so often lacked. Instead of travelling the road to power, Labour has preferred to park in a cul-de-sac to avoid the traffic we need to navigate to form a government. The car sits by the kerbside with the engine running so people know Labour is there, but the handbrake is on and the gears are in neutral. The passengers sit and talk about anything which avoids the real purpose of the car. Those who call for the journey to be continued are condemned as redTories or Blairites. The journey is very rarely completed. Labour’s preferred journey, it would seem, is not the road to power.

Knowing all this, and feeling sick to my soul, I stood as a Labour candidate at the general election. You may ask why. I know, I still ask myself the same question today. I almost didn’t stand in the election. I believed in Labour, but I didn’t believe in Jeremy Corbyn, and elections always come back to leadership. The simple answer: I believed, and still do believe, that a better Labour Party is possible. I wanted to get back to Parliament, help sort the party out, remove the scourge of Corbynism, continue to represent my constituents and give them a Labour Party they could vote for in numbers sufficient to form a Labour government. This, to me, remains a noble cause.

The majority of the parliamentary Labour Party was against an early election. Any early election, we knew, would be a Brexit election and would be wrong in principle. A general election is a decision for a period of government lasting a maximum of five years. Brexit is for a generation. To compress both into one democratic event was against the best interests of the British people. I also knew a Brexit election would quickly turn into a Corbyn election. Another factor, I believe, not lost on Conservative strategists.

All political instincts pointed towards sorting out Brexit first. I believed the people had the right to a final say on Boris Johnson’s ‘deal’ because it would affect the country’s future for decades to come. They had the right to compare the terms with the promises he made as leader of the Leave campaign in 2016. In my view, a confirmatory ballot was the best way to hold Johnson to account.  

The direction of travel was obvious. Brexit first; general election second. So, in the land where the world is turned upside down, the leader of the Labour Party and the majority of the shadow cabinet ran off the other way. Unforgiveable. The PLP knew what was coming and asked, “Why give the Tories what they want?”

There are two answers to that question. The leadership thought Labour would win. A cursory look at the opinion polls and Corbyn’s personal ratings showed how delusional that assessment was. The other answer is, Corbyn just wanted it over. The life’s work of Labour’s accidental leader stopped short of becoming prime minister. If your task was to change the Labour Party and not the country, you could argue you had achieved your ambition.

In hindsight, I believe we were dealing with people who were deluded or deeply cynical. Or both. The deluded looked at the 2017 election and thought, with a bit more effort, we’d get there. More of the same would do it. The cynical just wanted the election out of the way, whatever the circumstances, whatever the consequences for Labour candidates and the communities they wanted to represent. The Corbynistas’ emphasis was never on winning.

I knew what was to be visited upon the party and Sedgefield. From the moment the whistle was blown to start the election and in the dark recesses of the night, where the doorstep demons played on my mind in the weeks of fitful sleep that followed, I could see the wreckage of a Labour election defeat which would make us yearn for 1983 and Michael Foot.

The dread of what was to come turned me sentimental for the House of Commons, as if I knew that, as much as I would fight to prevent it from happening, my tenure was coming to an end. I even took photos of my office, with its high walls of Pugin designed wall paper, piles of reports and well-stocked bookcases, such was the sense of foreboding. When I wandered into the chamber to listen to debate, I would linger longer than usual before setting off. I knew the sounds and feel of the chamber of the House of Commons were more than likely to become nothing more than a memory.

The 2017 and 2019 elections can be understood simply. In 2017 the electorate voted Labour because they didn’t think we could win. In 2019 they didn’t vote Labour because they thought we could. The game was ugly. Many of Labour’s fans rushed to join the government’s stands, angry and even hurt at what they were witnessing. The anger simmered on the doorstep. Corbyn was a “leftie”, a “traitor to his country”, useless, scruffy. Labour was the “nasty party”, an accolade once reserved for the Conservatives.

I could see the hurt in the expression of one elderly gentleman, a lifelong Labour voter, as he shook his head in disbelief and said, “Phil, that man is stopping me from voting Labour.” Our conversation was one of the most difficult I experienced during the campaign. There was no way of consoling him. He was tormented. He knew by not voting for me, the Tory candidate could become his MP. As we parted, he looked me straight in the eye and I knew that he knew that was exactly what was going to happen. I will never forgive the leadership for placing that elderly, decent, lifelong Labour supporter and a thousand like him in that position. It was a betrayal.

The sounds of betrayal were heard in many doorstep conversations and became the tipping point of the campaign. They allowed Labour voters to flip from Labour to Conservative. I found great irony in this. Irony completely lost on the Corbynistas, but drawn from their own world view which professes that Labour governments betray; they do not deliver. Labour voters were now throwing back at Corbyn the same language he had used against previous Labour leaders. Labour voters felt betrayal because they couldn’t vote Labour. Corbyn didn’t speak for them. Labour wasn’t their party anymore. The bond was broken.

To make matters worse, Labour had also become the unpatriotic party. Corbyn did not understand the first duty of government was to protect the country and its people. Neither did Labour show any vestige of economic literacy. Our supporters knew two plus two made four, even though the party’s Orwellian approach to economics encouraged them to believe the answer was actually five. Supporters who understood we wanted to help them, also knew that pie in the sky was not the answer.

Aspiration was a non-word. Corbyn’s Labour Party could not comprehend that working-class parents want middle-class kids. To say so was sacrilege, but only to those Party members from middle-class backgrounds or middle-class lifestyles – the kind who wake up on the morning after an election with another Conservative government in office knowing that their lives aren’t going to be affected, while taking comfort in the belief that they won the argument.    

The Labour creed under Corbyn had reached middle age, a time where it is more popular to reminisce. The party pined for lost strikes and picket lines, a time when the answer to economic woes was to nationalise the culprit and throw away the key. The party’s leadership welcomed the future as the past, a world of class conflict which wasn’t popular back when, never mind now. No going back had turned into no going forward.  

For me, to be told my party didn’t put the country first, sided with the foe and not the friend, stung the most. Veterans, many lifelong Labour supporters who had served our country, could not trust Labour to do the same. I had sat on the Defence Select Committee and visited service personnel on duty in the Falklands, Iraq and Estonia. On more than one occasion I met service men and women from the North East, some with relatives in the villages known as the Trimdons, where I grew up listening to the war stories of my parent’s generation.

I suppose my generation, the first born after the Second World War, is also the last where every household heard first-hand stories about the conflict our parents lived through. The war touched everyone and was part of the life story of our village. Where now there are memorials, there were once those who lived to tell the tale. We were proud of what we as a country had achieved. To be told on the doorstep that I was representing a party that didn’t seem to share those sentiments brought back all those memories. A Labour leader who appears to disrespect his country also disrespects its people. Labour was no longer living by the Clem Attlee maxim: “To serve the country, is to serve the movement.” Corbyn was successfully exorcising the belief in country from the soul of Labour.

A lot of the doors I knocked during the campaign belonged to homes in communities labelled as left behind – only they are not left behind, they’ve moved on. I grew up on a council estate built for mining families. Virtually every man down my street worked at one of the local collieries, be it Trimdon Grange or Fishburn or elsewhere in the shrinking Durham coalfield. There was a great feeling of togetherness. There was the club, the allotments, pigeon racing and, of course, the leek show. A whole village based round one industry. The village was Labour. Durham was Labour. There was a common political heritage. The hardship suffered by mining communities ensured they found their political home in Labour. Togetherness was a necessity, not a luxury.

That was then and this is now.

The last colliery in Sedgefield closed at Fishburn in 1973. A science park now overlooks the old mine workings. In villages where there were once whole streets of miners there are now whole streets of privately rented properties, with rogue landlords a problem. But new housing estates have also risen, where working people live or aspire to live. New industries have arrived offering new skills and opportunities. The community feel has atomised, the social club replaced by social media. All of this, both good and bad, is real life transformed and causes Labour a problem. In many ways, the party has failed to adapt to the new environment. The traditional architecture of the house Labour occupied is out of place. The monolithic industries that nourished the party from birth have gone. The tragedy is, the party’s ability to adapt Labour values to changing times has been woeful. It’s not our communities that have been left behind; it’s the Labour Party.

During the election campaign, through the streets of these villages, canvass teams took the Labour message of yesteryear. As we knocked the doors and waited for an answer you could feel the presence of Corbyn at your shoulder, like a spectre from some by-gone era that never really was. The voter may speak to you, but they could see only “him”. 

The election’s December weather was just the same as any other December: cold, damp and as unwelcoming as the response we received on many a doorstep. Don’t get me wrong, the Labour vote was there, but reluctantly. As the campaign settled into the grind, our worst fears were realised as reluctance turned to rejection. Our canvas returns were showing even the Labour vote of 2017 was changing sides in 2019.

As we traipsed the streets, with daylight at a premium, the loneliness of the long-distance canvasser crept over us. The atmosphere on the estates, where once our vote was strong, rested on us like the anguish of separation. The, “I just can’t trust you any more”, conversations. The sorrow as voters pointed out that we hadn't used to be like this. “You listened. We talked. Now you’ve betrayed me, because I want to get Brexit done and you haven’t got rid of him.” The door slams. 

The toxic mix of Corbyn and Brexit made the relationship unbearable. We wait to see if the separation is only a trial, or whether divorce is to follow. The emotional trauma involved will not make for an easy reunion. Leaving a lifelong political allegiance built on trust can be heart-wrenching. The process reminds me of Labour MPs who break the parliamentary whip for the first time. The first time is hard, after the second or third time it becomes easier. Almost a natural thing to do, as Corbyn with his hundreds of parliamentary votes against the last Labour government can testify. 

There was many a difficult Brexit conversation. From those who confronted you with a wall of anger and no discussion, to those who were prepared to listen as you put your case. Convinced, they would then say: “But what about Jeremy Corbyn?” I felt like I’d pulled the Brexit curtains apart only to discover they concealed a brick wall.

I knew Brexit would hit the north-east hard. How hard was confirmed once I’d seen the government’s own Brexit impact assessments. That’s why I believed the Brexit facts should be put before my constituents in a confirmatory referendum. I also knew Brexiteers would call such an idea a betrayal. For me, to sit back, say nothing and ignore the facts was the greater betrayal and I just couldn’t do it. To accept that people had voted Leave, encouraged by a set of promises that may not marry up to the reality and say nothing, was, in my book, not a tenable position.

There was no Labour leadership on Brexit. The party was shackled to Corbyn’s ambivalence. Labour’s Brexit policy morphed into incoherence and was neither one thing or another. Whether you were a Labour MP in favour of delivering Brexit after amending the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, or whether you believed the final say belonged to the people, campaigners were left to their own devices. The disconnect was so great. When Corbyn entered the election without declaring how he would vote in another referendum you knew, whatever your views on Brexit, you were on your own.  

When the electorate wanted Brexit resolved, Labour’s position was to dither. The electorate wanted an end to Brexit. They wanted to get Get Brexit Done. The ingenious but disingenuous Tory campaign slogan tapped into voter fatigue. Johnson was going to bring Brexit to an end. Every politician who disagreed with him was a “naysayer”. A “doomster”. Unpatriotic. Betrayers of the national good. Sentiments already associated with Corbyn in the mind of the voters.

Many of those who wanted Brexit done lived on the once Labour housing estates. Their response to the argument that Brexit would make the area poorer and cost jobs was: “It can’t be any worse than it is now.” They would argue that Britain would survive Brexit, because we had won two world wars. To survive, but not necessarily to thrive, was enough. I was told the country needed to bring back the “Battle of Britain” spirit. For these voters, the past was more attractive than the future –  only it wasn’t the kind of past Corbyn’s Labour Party offered. The populists and Conservatives were winning with their three-word slogans, such was the vacuum the left-behind Labour Party had created. Labour with no vision for the future, also managed to lose the battle for the past.

For some, ‘getting Brexit done’ was visceral. One former Labour voter cast her postal vote for the Conservatives for the first time. She said she didn’t agree with me and Brexit must be delivered. I pointed out to her there was three kinds of Brexit we knew about. Theresa May’s version. Boris Johnson’s version and Nigel Farage’s version. Which one did she want? ‘Not Boris Johnson’s,’ she replied. To ‘get it done’ she was prepared to vote for a Brexit she didn’t even believe in.

For other Brexit supporters, when I tried to raise the content of the Prime Minister’s ‘deal’ it didn’t matter what it was, because ‘out meant out’. Labour wasn’t going to give them what they wanted, so they were going to vote for Boris Johnson or the Brexit Party instead, even though they did not know the shape or form the ‘out’ on offer looked like. The raw emotion generated by Brexit for some voters was intense. They weren’t going to change their minds. Detail didn’t matter, only leaving did. The consequence of whatever ‘out’ we ended up with wasn’t a problem. Brexit ended up being the one issue not discussed during the election campaign.

Even if Labour had shown leadership on Brexit, it would have been Jeremy Corbyn up front leading the charge and therefore there would be no charge, because there would be no leadership. Labour wandered into the valley of death on 12 December 2019, like scattered platoons without direction from the commanding officer. The electorate could see that and for every one person who raised Brexit, four or five raised ‘him’ on the doorstep.

To wake up every morning to another Labour policy pledge or spending commitment brightened my morning before I headed out for another canvassing session. As serious as the situation was, you just had to laugh at Labour’s incompetence. The announcements became light relief. I’d turn the radio on to another free this or free that, or to learn something was to be banned or nationalised. A fortune was to be spent on this pet scheme or that initiative. The authors of the manifesto need to be congratulated for trying to recast the fundamentals of economics and their ability to list things. I could imagine them sitting in a room at a desk with pen and paper, a queue of pressure groups at the door who would bring with them their special plea or demand and see it added to the manifesto without analysis or question. I’d smile to myself, shake my head, turn off the radio and leave the house to face the voters.          

Voters did not believe Jeremy Corbyn was fit to be Prime Minister or that Labour’s plans were credible. The party’s strategy was incoherent. People were fed up with Brexit. They wanted to move on. Labour could say nothing to convince them there was more than one way to move on. Brexit, is therefore, something that is now going to be done to people, because ‘out’ is not in their hands any more. In 2019, Labour deserved to lose, but the Conservatives didn’t deserve to win.

On election night, after our last canvassing session, I returned home to wait for the exit poll. The prediction was an 11 per cent swing away from Labour to the Conservatives. The swing against Labour in Sedgefield, needed to be just over seven. I knew Sedgefield had gone and the North East Labour heartlands were going to be hit hard. As the night progressed Helen Goodman in Bishop Auckland lost. So did Laura Pidcock in North West Durham who had championed the call for a general election.  Darlington’s Jenny Chapman, who I’ve known for 25 years, lost. On Teesside, Paul Williams in Stockton South and Anna Turley in Redcar went the same way. Susan Dungworth was defeated in Blyth.

At that point the conveyer belt stopped, with Wansbeck, Stockton North, Sunderland Central at the head of the row of constituencies waiting to be tipped over into the blue. As more than one MP pointed out to me, if the general election had continued another week they would have gone too.

When the tsunami comes there is nothing you can do, except hope the defence your majority affords can keep the tidal wave at bay. The 2019 general election definitely changed Labour’s shoreline, perhaps for good. Another deluge may wipe Labour off the electoral map. Labour’s task is to stop that from happening.

The significance of Sedgefield in Labour history ensured there would be a great deal of media interest in the loss of the constituency to the Conservatives. The Corbyn press machine had already started cranking out the line the general election defeat was down to Brexit. Not true, and if it was true, why vote for an election in Parliament you knew was going to be about Brexit. Labour’s defeat was down to Corbyn and those around him and they knew it. What was predicted when he was first elected back in 2015 had come to pass, so the Corbyn cult looked for solace in the deep well of victimhood because it couldn’t be anything to do with them.

I knew my task was to use the media to counter the Brexit argument at every opportunity. The reason for Labour’s defeat was so obvious and I wasn’t going to let Jeremy Corbyn get away with it. A lack of Labour clarity on Brexit was down to a lack of leadership. It always comes back to leadership. But it was much more than Brexit, it was ‘him’, his world view and all he allowed to happen to the Labour Party on his watch. I and many others had warned of the inevitable outcome. It had to be said. So I said it and I’m writing it now.

The following Sunday, 15 December, I drove the 250-odd miles to Westminster and left my car in the House of Commons underground car park. I had until Thursday, 23.59hrs to empty my parliamentary office. The well-stocked bookcases needed to be relieved of their books, my desk cleared of reports and papers. Memories taken away.

Hilary Benn, whose office was next to mine, came into to commiserate. During the time leading up to the Syria debate on 2 December 2015, whilst Hilary was working in his room on the speech he gave to parliament, I was next door methodically collating support amongst the PLP to vote with him and the government on military action against ISIS. I didn’t know how brilliant his speech was to be, and he didn’t know I was working to ensure his argument gained as much Labour support as possible on a free vote in the lobby that evening. We took pride in defending a world view that believed the international community should act in concert to protect the innocent and defeat the evils of a grotesque terrorist organisation.     

After seeing Hilary, I bumped into John McDonnell as I returned from a meeting. He came over to me, grasped my hand in both of his and said he was deeply sorry for my defeat. “But it was Brexit, wasn’t it?”, he told, rather than asked, me. I thanked him for his condolences and replied: “I think we both know what the problem was, John.” Without another word, his world view challenged, he turned and walked away.

When the last box was placed in the boot of my car, I discovered it had a flat tyre. Like most modern cars there was no spare. Eventually, after negotiating with the House of Commons authorities the breakdown service was allowed onto the estate. The tyre was replaced with something called a universal wheel so I could drive for what would be the last time from the House of Commons to the flat I rented just across the Thames. As midnight approached, I was faced with the embarrassment of my Nissan Qashqai limping out of the Parliamentary estate escorted by the AA. For me, the episode summed up the whole damned general election campaign. Unlike the Labour Party, however, my car still has four wheels.  

At the time of writing the leadership contest is trundling along. The Corbynistas can feel the reins of the Labour Party slipping from their grip. Leader and deputy leadership candidates Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon offer Corbyn continuity. What a dismal thought. If they were to win, there may be continuity, but there would be no future for the Labour Party. That reality still hasn’t sunk into some local parties. Even in Sedgefield, Redcar and North West Durham, the Corbyn continuity candidates were nominated by party members, as if local activists enjoy having Conservative MPs.   

The next Labour leader has one task: to break with Corbynism in all its manifestations and fancies. The Corbynista world view must be expunged from the Party’s ranks. Those who flirt with our nation’s foes should be frog-marched across the parade ground and discharged once again to the margins. The wish lists and fantasy economics should be filed away in the basement and kept as a reference of what not to do. Professionalism should stamp out incompetence. Anti-Semites should be shown the door, the locks changed so they can never return. Celebrating, not vilifying past Labour governments, should be our first reflex. Winning should be the cornerstone of the Labour Party’s purpose. Labour cannot choose continuity over change, or call for unity without challenge. We need to become the future party, not the left behind party.

We also need to go further. Dig deeper, beyond even our purpose and search once again for a beginning. We need to ask ourselves if the Labour Party was created today, at the start of the third decade of the twenty-first century, what would it look like? Where would our strength come from? How would you root a new Labour Party in our communities? The world that created the Labour Party has gone, but a Labour Party is still needed because the values we hold are for all time. Our quest is to make them relevant once more for the here and now, not the age of once upon a time.

Many in what were the traditional Labour heartlands see the modern Labour Party as metropolitan, middle-class and university educated, where to be Labour is to be virtuous. Labour has become a means of feeling good, not doing good. We are now synonymous with social isssues, which, important as they are, are single issues and even when put together they do not make a whole and they definitely do not make a government. The Labour Party finds it easier to embrace cultural issues rather than attempt to devise a socio-economic policy that appeals to all sections of British society. Post-Brexit Britain will demand such attention, and Labour cannot be left behind. At present, we make our appeal to those on welfare benefits and zero-hour contracts while attacking the very rich as if there’s nothing in between. But there is a whole swathe of the population between the two ends of the spectrum we do not attempt to engage, unless of course, they are students. In Highgate, in north London, one of the most middle-class and prosperous areas in the capital, ten per cent of the electorate are Labour Party members. The figure is nowhere near that in Sedgefield, a place where people would benefit from a Labour Party true to its values, not side tracked by posturing. Labour needs to once again speak for the whole of Britain.                 

The Labour Party has also stepped away from a belief in country as if we are afraid to express our patriotism because that is deemed to be the thin end of the nationalist wedge. As a result, nationalism has found home in our communities, manipulated by those who don’t have the best interests of those communities at heart. We have vacated the field so completely we are no longer given licence to speak up for the best interests of the country, because we are no longer believed to be for the country. As a consequence, to be anti-Brexit, is to be anti-British. Labour’s leadership under Jeremy Corbyn gave the impression British traditions and values are not something of which we should be proud. With that cloud hanging over Labour as we entered the general election campaign there was always going to be a downpour of derision. The EU referendum was the early weather alert. Instead of changing course, we sailed straight into the eye of the storm. Labour politicians were not able to hold a conversation with traditional Labour voters, in a passionate and reasonable manner, that perhaps Brexit was not in their or the country’s best interest.

Labour’s other obligation is to lay to rest the language of ideology. The language that determines public sector good, private sector bad. Labour’s approach should not be either/or, but what works. There should be a place in the Labour Party for the wealth creator as well as the public sector worker. We should not be proscriptive because it is not ideology that matters, but values. ‘For the many, not the few’ is a great mantra, only the ‘many’ do not believe us. The ‘many’ isn’t a homogenous group, all working class and overalls. They are the self-employed as well as those on the minimum wage, military personnel as well as the small business owner, the gig economy worker and the engineer, computer scientist and teaching assistant. They are the nurse, police officer, care worker, call centre operative and shop assistant. The list goes on because the ‘many’ are complex and varied, driven by human nature as well as economic need. The many are all looking for a vision of the future not competing pasts, which is all that is on offer from both Labour and the Conservatives.

If Labour is to be the party of the future, we must want to feel the adrenalin of winning. Boldness is now required. Honesty, too. Now is not the time to flinch. The situation is very bad for both the party and our country’s democracy. Parliament needs a viable opposition, but also a government in waiting. The task falls to Labour, but if the party continues on its present course, some other progressive, political force will eventually emerge and do the job for us. There is nothing set in stone that says the task should remain Labour’s.

 This essay is a personal testament about my experiences during the 2019 general election campaign. It is written from the gut and is what I believe. After a lifetime of membership I fear for the Labour Party. My first general election as a Labour supporter was 1979. We lost then too and didn’t win for another 18 years. During my four decades of membership, Labour has enjoyed only 13 years in power. That’s not a good record. We need to think long and hard about why, because we cannot achieve anything without winning.  In government, Labour transformed the country for the better. I want to see us do that again. Labour needs to change the habits of a lifetime and win. Our years in government show what we can be done when Labour delivers on our values with purpose and committed leadership. Because, after all, it always comes back to leadership.

Phil Wilson was Labour MP for Sedgefield from 2007 to 2019.