Labour tales in modern Britain

Adam Harrison with the latest from the wonk world

This age of post-truth politics can sometimes feel a little fantastical. In thinking about the publication of Jon Cruddas’ independent review of Labour’s election defeat and Tristram Hunt’s new book on England, a host of myths and fairytales rose to retell themselves. The five years following Labour’s 2010 defeat: all emperor’s new clothes. Those who suggested the 35 per cent strategy might not work: Cassandra doomed never to be believed. Now, the lesser-known fairytale: Goat’s Ears. The king of the land has goat’s ears. It’s a secret, but his barber cannot keep it in. So he digs a hole, into which he whispers the grotesque truth. Years late a flute is carved from a tree that grew from the spot – and all the flute can play is: ‘the king has goat’s ears’.

Reading Cruddas in particular can sometimes feel a little like goat’s ears. Although the review was finally published in its totality at the end of last month, much of it had been fed out online over the preceding year. Many of its messages, though, seem to have disappeared down digital worm holes, and we await a time when their truth will be properly heard.

But their ring will already be familiar to readers concerned with remaking Labour as a party of power: it lost because voters believed it was anti-austerity; it is shedding working-class support; it has been rapidly distancing itself from voters’ views on welfare.

New findings have been unearthed, including a glimmer of light in Scotland where we learn that Labour is the ‘least toxic’ party, and that the Conservatives remain immensely disliked. That said, between just 2011 and 2014 in England and Wales Labour completely lost its ‘toxicity gap’ advantage over the Tories – the proportion of the electorate saying they would ‘never vote Labour’ rose to nearly equal the figure saying the same about the Conservatives.

On Scotland they are stark: ‘Labour is lost in Scotland’, they grimly conclude, describing how the party has fallen between the two stools of ‘progressive Scottishness’ and socially conservative unionism’. On Labour’s local election results, it performed better in areas containing many ‘pioneers’ – socially liberal voters, one of the three voter archetypes employed by the authors and The Campaign Company. The other two – politically uncommitted ‘prospectors’ and conservative ‘settlers’ – make up many of the seats where Labour needs to do well in 2020 and where it performed poorly in May, not least the bellwether seat of Nuneaton where the local poll saw a swing to the Conservatives of 11 points.

Both Scotland and England now appear tough terrain. Tristram Hunt has turned his attention to the latter, commissioning a pamphlet, Labour’s Identity Crisis, with chapters from an array of general election 2010 candidates relating their experience of England from the Labour doorstep – or, too often, not very Labour – doorstep.

Published by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the collection is a valuable piece of work whose tales from the campaign trail run the light of personal experience over many of Labour’s limitations. And it is right to call upon the party to consider more deeply what Englishness means today and how it might be expressed politically.

There remains a danger, though, in reading recent results as meaning we ought to approach different parts of Britain differently. John Denham’s reflections at the end of the pamphlet begin to stray in this direction as he describes how the ‘UK general election was actually four distinct electoral contests in the four nations and provinces of the UK’. There is truth in this, but it does not follow that a party which aspires to win Britain should head too far down the road of different approaches in each of England, Scotland and Wales. A national party should start with the body politic it seeks to occupy – Westminster – and provide answers from there. Labour is a unionist party and an anti-nationalist party. Its job is to provide answers which carry across internal borders. A Labour party that does not know how to face down both nationalism and conservatism – bedfellows that have never lain uncomfortably together – is not worth its salt. England may be a jigsaw without a clear solution, but it will fit together better if the problem-solving extends beyond its edges.

Elsewhere, the thinktank world is watching IPPR with interest under its new director Tom Kibasi, formerly a partner at McKinsey. In his early interventions he has promised, ‘a new radicalism in our public policy’ whose ‘programme of new radicalism will be about reform to the roots. An optimism of substance, rather than of style.’ He diagnoses a lack of confidence on the left. And who can disagree?

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Adam Harrison is deputy editor of Progress

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