We all like big party meetings. As activists they make us feel like we are on a roll, that we are gaining momentum, and that victory is just around the corner. So it was sobering at Progress Question Time to hear former Labour member of parliament Jacqui Smith recall that the largest party meeting she had ever attended was in Sheffield in 1992, just before Labour went on to lose the general election.
Greater party activism does not necessarily translate into greater support among the wider electorate. In fact, if those who are active try to remould the party to their own worldview and that view is not one that the all-important swing voter warms to, it can actually do the opposite.
The main focus of the panel discussion, like much of the conference itself, was whether or not Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour party leadership marks a broadening of Labour’s appeal to voters, or simply a deepening of support among those who were already onside.
Philip Collins from the Times was unequivocal with his view that Labour under Corbyn is unelectable. He argued that every time a party changes its leader there is talk of ‘new politics’ and that Corbyn’s pledge to vote against his own party’s position on renewal of Trident nuclear defence is not new politics, it is chaos.
Collins was undoubtedly the most sceptical of the panel participants, arguing that ‘there was nothing David Cameron could do to animals, dead or alive, that would see a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party win in 2020’. He argued that the focus on turning out non-voters was a recipe for bigger majorities in seats the party already holds, and the path to victory lies in getting people who used to vote Labour but now vote Conservative to switch back.
Newly elected MP Conor McGinn opened with another sobering observation – that no political party has a right to exist. Other great parties who have failed to adapt and evolve to changing needs and changing attitudes have disappeared from the political landscape. McGinn still holds hope for victory in five years’ time, but argues the party will have to move closer to the views of the broader British public and inspire people.
Another newly elected MP, and Corbyn backer, Cat Smith offered a more optimistic view of Labour’s current predicament. The surge in party members represented a genuine opportunity to turn the Labour party back into a broader movement. She stressed the importance of internal unity, a gender-balanced leadership, and robust internal debate about ideas.
Much of this was familiar territory to me. I have been a Labour MP in New Zealand for seven years and we have been through two leadership contests that involved the wider party membership. As in the United Kingdom, those contests triggered an increase in our membership, although that has not necessarily proved lasting, and an increase in activist activity. Despite that, we achieved our worst-ever election result in 2014 – just 25 per cent of the popular vote.
At the beginning of his speech to conference Corbyn stated that his election as leader of the Labour party was like an earthquake in British politics. We know a bit about earthquakes in New Zealand, but by the end of the conference I still did not have an answer to my most important question – where was that quake’s epicentre?
Chris Hipkins MP is the New Zealand Labour party’s opposition chief whip. He tweets @ChrisHipkins
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