The Progress West Midlands conference in the West Midlands addressed several of the major issues facing the Labour party at the moment: how Labour can regain its reputation for economic credibility, whether devolution can work for England, whether Britain should leave the European Union, and perhaps the biggest of all – why we lost the last election.
The last question was discussed by several local members of parliament and Labour candidates. Listening to them speak about their experiences during the campaign I was struck again by how much energy, commitment and time it takes to be an MP. No one wants to do this unless they passionately believe that Labour can make a difference to people’s lives.
During the discussion about Labour’s economic credibility, political analyst Lewis Baston provided some enlightening research. It shows that voters have fairly fixed ideas about what political parties will do. They already assume that Labour is the ‘nice’ party which will protect the NHS and build schools. They equally assume that the Conservatives are the ‘nasty’ but fiscally prudent party. This assumption allowed the Tories to get away with a £12bn hole in their budget plans that was barely questioned because, as Baston said ‘no one ever worries that the Tories spend too much’.
Meanwhile, Labour spent a lot of time repeating a message that the electorate had already accepted, without reaching out beyond it. There were too many people who instinctively wanted to vote Labour, but heard nothing from the party other than that we intended to take their money and give it away to someone else.
Baston was also brutally clear about the task that Labour faces as a party of opposition. British voters are a risk-averse lot. They generally prefer to stick with what they know and will tend to vote for the incumbent government unless that government has clearly been shown to be a failure. This means that to some extent we are reliant on the Tories themselves to mess up. But Labour needs to aid this process by setting up targets against which the government will fail and being ruthless about holding them to account.
However, to be an effective opposition, Labour needs to be less self-obsessed. During a protracted leadership election this has been inevitable, but Jess Phillips the newly-elected MP for Birmingham Yardley attributed part of her success to the fact that she talked to people about them not about us. While those with a keen interest in politics might care whether the party is leftwing or left-of-centre most voters do not. The current obsession for identifying people as ‘Blairites’ is probably irrelevant to anyone outside Labour. As Tristram Hunt pointed out, Tony Blair was elected leader over 20 years ago, and, with all due respect to his achievements he should no longer be Labour’s defining figure. After all, no one bothers identifying Tories in relation to Margaret Thatcher.
The debate about whether Britain should leave the EU was the most open-ended of the day. Lee Barron of the trade union congress made the point that under a Tory government the EU is only guarantor of labour rights, but acknowledged the possibility that if David Cameron were to negotiate these rights away then union support might be in question. Gisela Stuart turned her forensic intelligence onto some of the undoubted problems of bureaucracy and lack of democratic accountability in the EU, leaving shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden to offer the most unequivocal opposition to Brexit. But the debate posed more questions than it answered. There are clearly differences in opinion within the party – not as raw and gaping as those in the Conservative party – but ones which need to be resolved before the referendum.
The overriding theme of the day was the need for Labour to focus on the future – not only of the party, but of the country. This was the main message of Tristram Hunt’s keynote speech. The United Kingdom independence party and elements of the far left trade on a nostalgia for a past that Labour should be honest enough to admit, is not coming back. But, as Hunt has written elsewhere, Labour also needs to do more to support communities left behind by globalisation and changes in technology. There was general agreement that Labour needs to be the champion of science and industry and Harold Wilson’s famous ‘white heat’ speech of 1963 was mentioned several times. Its message that the country would fail to prosper unless it embraced new technology is a timely reminder that Labour will equally fail to prosper unless it regains its mantle as a party which embraces the future rather than looking to the past.
Christabel Cooper is a member of the Labour party
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