No mean task

Adam Harrison with the latest from the wonk world

Last month Tanked Up reported that Policy Network would be continuing the long-running ‘southern discomfort’ series of studies into Labour’s electoral (mis)fortunes. The problem is now extremely serious, and Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice’s latest instalment takes the form of an entire book.

It makes for grim reading, opening: ‘The Labour party suffered a crushing defeat at the May 2015 general election, finishing nearly 100 seats behind the Conservatives. This was one of the worst results in our history’. The new polling the book presents is then thoroughly depressing for those of us who believe the Labour party is the best vehicle for greater equality in the country. It turns out too few people agree, and not only in the south, though the problem is acuter there. When asked which party is the most trusted to achieve greater equality, 20 per cent of voters overall say ‘Labour’, while the Tories are not too far behind on 14 per cent. In the south itself, Labour’s figure slips to 15 per cent while, devastatingly, the Conservatives overtake Labour on this measure here. A similar reversal of fortunes is revealed when the electorate are asked which party is better on social mobility.

The picture is similarly bleak on public services where ‘too many voters fear that Labour will waste money and give in to producer interests. It is a tragedy that Labour, the party that built the welfare state and institutions such as the National Health Service during the post-1945 Attlee governments, is no longer trusted to manage public services efficiently.’ Voters’ unvarnished feelings about Labour make for painful listening, but sound familiar to those of us who campaigned in marginal seats: ‘When asked to choose which term best described today’s Labour party, 44 per cent of voters in the south selected “incompetent”: across Britain, the figure was 37 per cent.’

Despite this, Diamond and Radice manage to sound a note of hope: ‘We say that the party should not despair. Labour can win. However, to achieve victory in 2020, we have to recognise both the scale and nature of our defeat, accept that the world has changed and launch a major revision of our ideas, strategy and policies.’ They warn against a plunge into policymaking – surely wise given the failure of the eventual splurge of policies under Labour 2010-15 to alter the public’s views of the party. The next step may even involve a new Clause IV. ‘The new Clause IV was a revision that ought to have taken place in the 1950s, rather than the 1990s. Today, the party needs … a modern affirmation of social democratic values as a marriage of social justice and individual freedom augmented by a commitment to internationalism and environmental sustainability.’ They conclude, ‘Labour is a party which voters believe has its heart in the right place, but has too often lacked the courage to take tough decisions and see through change in difficult times.’

Meanwhile, last month Progress released a new paper, ‘Is “southern discomfort” spreading?’, by Lewis Baston. Looking for trends that correlate with Labour’s poor electoral performance in the Midlands, Baston identifies the ‘car indicator’. Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, the number of households owning cars rose to close to the levels across the south of England, hinting at more individualised and more privatised lives. At the same time, the lack of ethnic diversity across swaths of this crucial region – in contrast to the much more diverse south-east where its performance since 1992 has, surprisingly, actually improved slightly – also tallies with Labour’s ‘Midlands Misery’.

Discovering a winning formula that marries an appeal to Midlands towns with the more metropolitan urban centres which are now the Labour party’s modern-day base is no mean task. That, of course, is before disaster in Scotland is factored back in, alongside creeping Welsh weakness in the face of a Tory challenge identified in Baston’s paper. If there is anything for the party to salvage from the verdict in May it should be the time and space over the next five years to work out where a 21st century Labour party stands and how it genuinely moves on from its past.

Meanwhile, progressive proposals for straitened times are still being made. Last month IPPR spelt out a different approach to the spending review. It recommends a lower surplus by 2019-20 and making ‘government spending more preventative, integrated and devolved, while boosting employment and economic growth.’ Whatever happens inside Labour, progressive thinktanks will need to continue to be a furnace of ideas for centre-left politics.

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Adam Harrison is deputy editor of Progress

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Photo: Flickr

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