Last night I received an email from the Labour party. It was about foxhunting. The issue of the day yesterday. My only regret was that the email hadn’t gone out earlier – it would surely have been an issue that would have boosted our vote in Heywood and Middleton massively.
I honestly didn’t know what to say when I opened that email. And I still can’t decide whether it would be worse if it had been part of an explicit strategy or if it had simply been sent out irrespective of the overall gameplan. One thing is for sure – the results in Clacton and Heywood have put paid, once and for all, to any of those policies aimed at the latte-sipping, chino-wearing, light Green, inner-city left. Surely?
We failed in three ways in Heywood and Middleton and succeeded in one. The success first: We kept our share of the vote. That was no mean achievement. The 2010 general election vote was a warning to us – the combined rightwing vote (Tories, United Kingdom Independence party and British National party) was nearly equal to the Labour vote. It just required voters to coalesce around Ukip to give us a scare. And it did. Boosted by a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote too. That latter point is really scary – Ukip became ABL (Anyone But Labour). We have been here before – and it does not have a happy ending. This is exactly what happened in the 2011 elections to the Scottish parliament, which set us on the road to the referendum. There is no comfort in the fact this happened to the Tories in Clacton too. And first past the post is no protection. When the voters decide to punish you they will break the electoral system to do so.
So that was the good news. What’s the bad news? Apparently we have lost the power of hearing.
For Labour, this was a by-election about the NHS. That was what voters ‘brought up on the doorstep’. For voters, visitors and the casual observer it was a by-election about immigration. Even in politics a conversation isn’t simply waiting for your turn to speak – it has to be about engagement. There is a perfectly defensible line to take on Labour’s record on immigration and its plans. It just doesn’t involve not mentioning it. And there is a blindingly obvious link to the NHS – a service that would stop tomorrow without immigrant workers.
That was a lack of courage.
So too was our response to Ukip raising the grooming and rape of young women in Rochdale. You could see we were outraged. But not by the rapes, instead by the fact the issue was raised. I’d have loved a Labour candidate who could say – ‘That’s right, it was disgusting. Those young women were betrayed. I want to be your MP to work with Simon Danczuk and Tom Watson to tackle historic abuse – and to make sure it never happens again’. The voice that David Blunkett would bring if he stood for South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner. The voice of working-class morality – and outrage – channelled politically to achieve change.
With no engagement and no passion, what we were left with was a campaign with no vision. I fully appreciate how difficult by-elections are, and the extent to which their dynamic is revealed on the ground and not imposed, but we chose to be bloodless. I often quote New Zealand Labour leader and prime minister Norman Kirk who said: ‘New Zealanders don’t ask for much: someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.’ Those wise words should be the starting point for everyone in thinking about the Heywood and Middleton by-election. They capture precisely what is missing from today’s depressing, desiccated politics. Lift, hope, ambition and above all life.
We talk about housing policies when people want a home. We talk about jobs as an end in themselves when people see them as the start of something – the ability to make a downpayment on a dream. We see life as a set of problems to be solved by policies when people see life as something to be lived and enjoyed.
We are in deep, deep trouble. We are lost and our voters want us back. They keep sending us messages. When will we listen?
John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan
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