As the true enormity of Labour’s electoral defeat sinks in, it seems to me that the spell Jeremy Corbyn first cast on the party in 2015 has finally been broken. Regardless of who they voted for that summer, or what cause they’ve been fighting for since, members are coming together to reflect on why we lost the general election in December – and what we have to do if we are ever to win one again.
Equally encouraging is the extent to which supposed ‘Corbynsceptics’ are willing to engage (or re-engage) in this process. Many have been driven away, singled out for abuse and generally pilloried as Red Tory scumbags by some of the outgoing regime’s most ardent supporters and online propagandists. Despite this, they are still prepared to get stuck in and help sort the party out as we face the daunting task of reconnecting with the public.
Since the beginning of January, Progress and Labour First have spoken to over 700 of these members (and the occasional critic) in places such as Pontypool, Kennington, Coventry, and York, providing them with both a space, and the opportunity, to articulate their concerns and aspirations (with the promise of more meetings in the spring).
Three things have been coming across loud and clear.
Firstly, people are fed up of sectarianism. They’re fed up with the paranoia and intolerance of the past four years. They’re fed up with the hyper factional mindset that has prioritised purity of thought and subservience to the leadership over popular support and the prospect of power.
Secondly, people want to win. There is an almost palpable desire to support the leadership candidate best placed to bring about some measure of unity in the party – and then use this as a solid foundation on which build a new, more trusting relationship with the country.
Lastly, people want a say in what the future looks like. Members want a relevant, forward thinking policy platform, and they are interested in developing new ways of engaging with the electorate. Above all, they want the next leader to provide them with a renewed sense of purpose – and one that chimes with the needs of the 2020s.
What do these three trends signify – and what do they mean for the Labour Party?
The reaction against sectarianism and the yearning for a more united movement are sides of the same coin. There are certainly signs that the party is moving towards an era of greater unity, almost organically. The spread of nominations received by the frontrunners in both leadership and deputy leadership elections seem to point towards a genuine coming together of the tribes, finally bridging the divide between those seats that nominated Liz Kendall in 2015 and Owen Smith in 2016 and those that supported Jeremy Corbyn.
I was struck by this in the first few weeks of the campaign when Jess Phillips was still in the running. A significant number of long-term Progress members, all of whom I’d assumed would be automatic Phillips supporters, told me that they wanted to wait and see who emerged as the most credible candidate before deciding whom to back.
Progress itself has not taken a hard line, with no one preferred candidate (regardless of what commentators in other publications might assert). Instead, at the beginning of the contest we urged members to give Jess, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer the support and encouragement they needed to make it through to the final stage of the process.
Unity is not given in any political party, but the election was a reminder that it is a prerequisite for victory. I hope all of the potential leaders, having been hardened by that failure, will think deeply and act decisively to heal the bitter divides in the party.
There is a caveat here, however: we cannot have unity at the cost of compromising basic principles and behaviours. The bullies, antisemites, and outriders who have tried to grow and perpetuate a toxic culture within the Labour party need to know they are no longer welcome. How we make this transition will be the first key test for the new leader.
This potential shift has consequences for us all, including Progress, and other organisations and affiliates associated with the pre-2015 (in some cases pre-2010) Labour party. We need to reflect: how do we make the case for progressive policies and continue to promote progressive talent, without falling further into the us-and-them trap of factionalism?
Furthermore, how do we celebrate and learn from the successes of the past without becoming beholden to them?
The true genius of Tony Blair in the 1990s was his ability to galvanise the Labour party and reconnect it with the country at large. These feats were dependent upon a compelling political narrative that provided a popular and much needed response to the social and political upheaval of the 1970s and 1980s.
With hindsight, it is much easier to see this as part of a wider pattern of renewal and reinvention on the progressive, social democratic wing of the party. In the 1930s and early 1940s the party’s domestic agenda was overhauled, and popular reputation rehabilitated thanks to the wartime coalition, leading to the era-defining victory of 1945. Similarly, the evolution of revisionist social democratic theory in the 1950s, combined with Harold Wilson’s mission to modernise Britain, led to a return to government in the 1960s.
The new leader will need to bring a similar measure of political transformation and popular revival – and root them both firmly in the context of early 2020s Britain. The challenges of this new decade will be among the most pressing we have ever faced. The climate crisis, the impact of technology on the labour market, and the lurch to authoritarianism around the world are serious problems. The country cannot afford for us to tip into another bout of infighting that has typified our party in the last five years.
As the leadership contest enters its final stages it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of this reality. Lets be clear eyed about the past, and the present for the sake of a better future.
Nathan Yeowell is director of Progress, Labour’s movement for progressives