The success of ‘Fortress Exeter’ should show the way for Labour, says Ben Bradshaw
As we visit deputy leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw in his Westminster office, ‘Corbynmania’ is at its zenith. The politics of the mob has found new voice in the Labour leadership race, most stridently in its hunts for ‘Tories’ lurking in the Labour party. The new online McCarthyism is often led by people whose support for Labour in the past has at best been intermittent or itself questionable.
Bradshaw is clear where he stands on this uncomradely behaviour. ‘I deplore personal attacks whether they are against people like me or Liz [Kendall] who are lifelong Labour members who have spent our lifetimes fighting the Tories … we should be playing the ball – not the man or the woman.’ He hints, though, that such debate, the nature of its conduct aside, might itself be inevitable. ‘We can’t avoid the debate we should have had five years ago, or possibly even [eight] years ago.’
It is clear that Bradshaw thinks that the party needs a long, hard think about where it went wrong. Labour’s failure at the ballot box was almost inevitable given its failure to come up to scratch on the big questions that voters ask themselves when making their choice. ‘We lost the election because of the wrong political strategy, we weren’t trusted on the economy and we had a massive deficit on leadership,’ he says.
Bradshaw is clear too that the road to No 10 in 2020 runs right through the seats that now look increasingly like Tory heartlands. ‘The stark reality is that four of the five voters that we are going to have to win back at the next election voted Tory on 7 May.’ The party performed weakly among ‘traditional’ supporters and terribly among others. ‘We had a three per cent lead among workers in the public sector; we had a 17 per cent deficit among workers in the private sector.’
This too is one of the former cabinet minister’s chief motivations for his bid for the deputy leadership of his party. Member of parliament for Exeter since 1997, and the first Labour MP for the city to win the seat while his party lost a general election, he explains, ‘My motivation for joining the race was trebling my majority in a former safe Tory seat of the kind we are going to have to win back in spades to have any hope of ever forming a government again … I thought it was very important that there was at least one candidate, on one of the ballots, who wasn’t in a safe seat’.
‘I’m chair of the 12-strong southern group of Labour MPs now, was ’, he continues. Labour slipped backwards in this electorally vital region in May. Could he have said or done more to make Labour change course? He replies that when he took the group to see Ed Miliband, ‘Almost universally, all of the candidates said we needed to have a more aspirational offer to win seats like Reading West, Swindon and so forth. And we were listened to, but I don’t think we were really heard – and that was the problem.’
There is a live debate in the Labour party at present about the value of ‘voter ID’. What did those more than four million conversations get us, some are asking. Bradshaw is unrepentant in his belief in the value of door-to-door campaigning. ‘But it can’t just be, “Are you Labour or Conservative? Right, OK, well goodbye, we’ll never speak to you again.” It has to be an engaging conversation.’ Some of the most successful campaigns in 2015 were, he argues, where candidates were able to develop their own narrative. ‘[In Exeter] we ran very locally branded campaigns around sense of place, around the candidate, obviously pro-business campaigns. We tore up the national script.’
‘If I hadn’t had the second-highest contact rate of any CLP in the country, 75 per cent in Exeter … I would never have had the result I had.’ He is bullish about his record: ‘Every leadership and deputy leadership contender’s contact rate should be made public, and I’m prepared to publish mine.’ Contracts for members of parliament stipulating contact rates should also become part and parcel of what it means to represent Labour in Westminster, and the former secretary of state for culture, media and sport attributes Labour’s struggles in Scotland to failings in this area. ‘Scotland is a classic example here of complacency, very little campaigning, very low membership.’
Change also needs to come at the top of the party, and Bradshaw backs increasing the number of councillors represented on the National Executive Committee, as well as the leaders of Scottish and Welsh Labour. But, he adds, ‘I also think we should have an ordinary party member, from Scotland and Wales, reflecting what I would want to see as a more federal party structure’. He is conscious too that, ‘We [Labour] haven’t run anything nationally in quite a long time’ and so ‘it’s really important that the party leadership at Westminster, the PLP, and the party in the country recognise and appreciate the contribution that’s being made by Labour in local government, and listen to their advice’.
It is clear that the Labour party is going to have to change if it is to survive. But what does a successful party look like? To approach this in a different way, we ask the deputy leadership contender: if the Labour party were an animal, which animal would it be? After a period of reflection, Bradshaw muses, ‘It would have to combine stamina, resilience, intelligence, wisdom, enough aggression. So it would probably have to be a predator … It would have to a be lion, wouldn’t it?’ Whatever the deputy leader election result, as the party surveys the inhospitable territory before it, Bradshaw’s experience and Fortress Exeter triumphs should surely be some of the guides leading the pride of Labour lions to higher ground.
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