Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

After the earthquake

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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Chris Hipkins MP

is the New Zealand Labour party's opposition chief whip


  • Good for you for tell it like it is. “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 only way Labour can get re-elected is to appeal to the widest sector of the population. The cut in welfare and hardships being experienced up and down the country by the continuing recession (London is not typical, everywhere else there is a downturn) should be a gift to Labour and the fact that the Tories are STILL harping on the economy would be exactly where Labour should be positioning itself. Instead all we get is empty slogans from terrorist-loving Jeremy Corbyn – WHERE ARE YOUR POLICIES JEREMY?

  • Don’t forget one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter”! The world is an ugly place and “violence” is inflicted by many undercover organisations other than the obvious. Of course mass membership does not automatically win wider support but I can see people rushing to join from a cross-section of society. How can any remotely sane person argue for Trident? We need to make common cause with our sister Socialist parties in Europe to campaign for worker’s rights, equality, financial controls and economic democracy.

  • I do think anyone believes that the change of politics by Labour will necessarily lead to any advances in election success, but I do think many believe it is a precondition to having a chance of so doing. The argument is that a decade or so of policies that do not distinguish themselves sufficiently from those of the Conservative ‘neo – liberals’ are almost certain to lead to the failures that we have had over the last two elections. The prospect of formulating winning policies have the potential to be election winners only if we move on from being a pale imitators of ‘neo – liberal’, ‘market – driven’ failure of investment. All the achieved growth has been built upon bank credit not investment. Motivating its own supporters is only the first step to generating a winning organisation. Tory voters are not impressed by those who borrow policies from their originators. We may be surprised by how many could potentially be attracted to a very distinct and new way of bringing industrial growth and prosperity. This is especially the case if apparent economic good feelings built upon bubbles, start to burst as surely it must if private banks continue to ‘print money’ to perpetuate the illusions of prosperity rather than investment in small business and major projects alike.

  • So does Corbyn and the Labour party sign up for changing the electoral system ? So far Lib Dems, UKIP, SNP and the Greens all support proportional representation. If Labour supported it a number of things would be possible. Tactical voting to get the Tories out, getting non-voters to vote would not be a waste of time, the tyranny of pandering to wavering voters in marginal seats would end and there would never be a majority Conservative Goverbnment again.

  • All that would be fine and dandy if Corbyn would let us into the secret of any POLICIES he may have. Every Labour leader at every Labour Party Conference since Keir Hardie has given us a CLUE about his policies, Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was totally vapid waffle. It might impress the BBC and people who think that “being nice to each other” is policy but it does not impress me. Come election time, the media and the press will make mincemeat out of him – even more than they are doing already.

  • Good points. With PR the views of 707,147 people who voted Labour in Scotland in 2015 would also be represented by one more than one solitary MP at Westminster.

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