‘Run towards the defeat,’ was Jon Cruddas’ advice to candidates for the leadership in his post-election interview with Radio 4. ‘Go to the dark places’, he encouraged them.
With a shock so bad – a loss to a Conservative party that did not deserve to be in contention – there is a collective grieving process taking place in the Labour party. With grief there are stages – some people deal with them in a logical and paced order. Others linger in certain stages, especially denial.
The denial comes in two forms, and both currently reside disproportionately in the parliamentary Labour party.
First, there is a significant group in the PLP who have failed to notice that the outcome of the election is that they do not have enough colleagues to abolish the bedroom tax and have focused instead on the fact that they now have someone in second place in their seats, in the form of the United Kingdom Independence party. That party might even deliver leaflets between elections.
This is not uncharted territory for Labour. Under the last Labour government it was the Liberal Democrats who used a combination of populist and leftist appeal to undermine Labour in its northern citadels. In 2002 the insurgent party took control of a flagship council as it leapt from 10 to 29 councillors in Hull, John Prescott’s backyard. While Ukip is a significantly different beast, good organisation and hard work remain the best way to root this equally populist party out of Labour’s heartlands.
The second group in the PLP comprises those arguing down the size and nature of the defeat. Almost all in this group want to just move on – quickly. They see any talk of the election as naysaying and failing to give necessary credit to those who held on. It is as if they resent those picking at the scab of the election.
The membership at large, in direct contrast, see the election result as an open wound where the poison still needs to be drawn before it can be dressed and heal. They, who campaigned day in, day out, need no reminder that in an election where Labour targeted 88 Tory members of parliament in England and Wales the party actually lost eight Labour-held seats, gained 10 and only reduced the Conservative majority in a further 10. Party members who slogged their guts out at the election, and those who thought they would not have to because the Tories were as bad as they had been told, now see the party on the operating table.
Members are shocked it was able to get this bad and are aghast that they were taken in by the idea that: messages that resonated with many in the party were working with the electorate; the centre-ground might have moved; that you would win a country without any media support or business and employer endorsement. They saw the exit poll and realised that the political centre of gravity was further away from Labour than was ever imagined.
Reminding people of the defeat is no counsel of despair. It is the constant reminder of how the party felt when it saw Nuneaton was not just lost but had drifted further away, that makes members want to get even. It is the reality of people locked into low pay, foodbanks and zero-hours contracts that makes members know we have to help those with ‘first world problems’ – paying a mortgage, getting their kids to university or pulling the money together to start a new business – in order to be able to change the mandate of the Low Pay Commission or legislate for a living wage. And they know there is no alternative to winning than going to the people who voted Tory last time. Had every single person who voted for the Scottish National party or the Green party voted Labour, the party would still be short of the 11.3 million votes the Conservatives received. Even Fabian Society analysis shows that four out of five votes needed to win in 2020 must come from those who voted Tory in 2015.
For those who find this unpalatable, here is the key.
First, Conservatives appear to adopt an exactly opposite approach to Labour when it comes to winning over those who vote for their main foe; they are delighted when they convert a Labour supporter into a vote for them. On the other hand, within Labour circles the prospect of persuading those who have voted Tory sometimes seems to provoke a response of distaste rather than enthusiasm. This attitude must cease. The thousands of people who opened their doors to Labour activists this year but who eventually chose the Conservatives are not bad people. If Labour did not win their trust, the fault is Labour’s alone.
Moreover, those who did vote Tory are not necessarily ‘Tory voters’. Many wanted to vote Labour but felt unable to because they did not trust Labour with their money, nor to deal effectively with the huge range of things the next five years could throw at Britain. Therefore how the new leader plays their first three months – starting with their first speech as Labour leader at TUC Congress just days after they are elected – will determine if those who reluctantly voted Tory might do so again. Attitudes form early and set quickly. Any sense that the new leader did not hear the message of the voters risks hardening the attitude of Tory switchers, rather than bringing them round.
In his valedictory speech after stepping down as leader of Scottish Labour Jim Murphy said, ‘The first rule of politics is the voters are never wrong in a democratic society’. The party members know this to be true. They are prepared to run – as Cruddas asked – into the dark places. The question is: will the MPs be with them?
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