04 January 2020, The Tablet

Will Labour ever understand what went wrong?

It wasn't Brexit that lost Labour the election, it was Mr Corbyn and friends.

Will Labour ever understand what went wrong?

Rebecca Long Bailey is favoured by the pro-Corbyn faction as representing continuity with the Party's present left-wing leadership.
Hannah McKay/PA Wire/PA Images

Denis Healey's advice – "when you’re in a hole, stop digging" – was never more necessary than for today's Labour Party. It lost the December 2019 general election in resounding fashion, and yet a considerable section of the Party insists on believing that it was the electorate, not the party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn, that got it wrong. Other causes they have been blamed include Brexit, the opinion polls, the BBC and mainstream media in general, Boris Johnson's lies, and a failure to campaign in seats they might lose instead of in seats that they thought, in a fit of delusional optimism, they could win.

The party is about to embark on a leadership election, and all these arguments will be heard repeatedly as the campaign unfolds. The truth that some in the party are struggling to recognise is that Jeremy Corbyn himself was toxic on the doorsteps when Labour activists went canvassing for votes. This was true whether the constituency was one of those that voted Leave in 2016 or voted Remain. Mr Corbyn's own tactic of professing neutrality between these two positions impressed almost no-one, but that clearly wasn't the decisive factor. Something about him personally seemed to trigger almost visceral dislike among many older working class voters. He did not cut a convincing figure as a possible future prime minister, whereas Boris Johnson, for all his manifest failings, clearly did.   

Labour has no shortage of advice as it wrestles with these issues, and we can expect the media to swing strongly behind the front-runner, Sir Keir Starmer, at least as the lesser of two evils. The latest poll of members by the YouGov polling organisation suggests that the other candidate when the final round of voting takes place is likely to be Rebecca Long Bailey, shadow Business Secretary. She is strongly favoured by the pro-Corbyn faction as representing continuity with the Party's present left-wing leadership.

She presents herself as an old-fashioned Socialist in the footsteps of Tony Benn and Michael Foot. During the Labour Party's annual conference she won herself a standing ovation led by the platform party, including Mr Corbyn himself, when she recited the old Clause Four of the Labour Party's constitution, and declared that although it was no longer printed on the back of Labour membership cards, it is still "written on our hearts." It was of course the Labour left's bête noir, Tony Blair, who engineered the rewriting of Labour's aims and objects.

The old pre-Blair Clause Four tells us almost all we need to know about Ms Long Bailey's brand of politics. Adopted in 1920, it declared that the party's purpose was "to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable popular administration and control of each industry or service."

The other thing we need to know about her, however, is that she hasn't hesitated to identify herself as a practising Catholic. She has steered clear of the "culture wars" over issues such as abortion and gay marriage, where her faith might have been used to attack her from the left as insufficiently politically correct. That may still happen, though we may earnestly hope supporters of Keir Starmer do not stoop that low.

What is not clear is where, if anywhere, Catholic Social Teaching figures in her thinking. It is hard to reconcile with the centralising tendencies of the old Clause Four, and ignores completely the fact that wealth creation requires not just "workers by hand or by brain" but also investors prepared to risk their capital. They too are entitled to a share of the fruits of industry.

Such capital may come from the State directly, or from shareholders. The latter group now includes massive investment holdings by insurance policies and pension funds, on which millions of people rely for an income. To them, "profit" is not the dirty word it appears to be to the drafters of the Labour Party manifesto. Nevertheless there were plenty of policies in the manifesto with which Catholics could agree, in the name of solidarity, subsidiarity, individual human dignity and the common good. We should not be too surprised if Boris Johnson steals some of them.

Some of the best advice for Labour comes from some of the most unlikely directions. Former Tory leader, for example, William Hague, writing in the Daily Telegraph, analysed a number of instances since the war where either the Conservatives or Labour had suffered a severe drubbing at the polls, and had realised the need, in Healey's phrase, to stop digging. In 1951, 1964, 1970, 1979, 1997 and 2010, a party returned to power after a long spell in opposition, and irrespective of the party concerned, he found five factors which made such a recovery possible.

"The first," he wrote, "is an appreciation of the strengths and appeal of the other side." Yet most candidates in the coming Labour leadership election seem utterly baffled by Boris Johnson's success, particularly among working-class voters, and could see no redeeming features in him at all.

Second, they must stop making excuses and recognise that they themselves, and not some external factor, are the problem. In Labour's case, obviously, not enough people saw them as a plausible government. British elections are usually won on the centre ground, centre-right or centre-left. It wasn't Brexit that lost Labour the election, it was Mr Corbyn and friends.

Third was a willingness to accept policies of the outgoing government, even those they had bitterly opposed. However difficult, Labour has to take a positive view of Brexit. In 1951 the Tories accepted the NHS; in 1997 Tony Blair accepted fundamental aspects of Thatcherism, such as privatisation. As it turned out, there was a lot wrong with a particular method of privatisation, such as the railway franchising system. But what was wrong with it was not the introduction of the profit motive into railway financing, as Labour seemed to think. The chosen system required bidders for rail franchises to estimate future operating income as high as possible, which was asking for trouble.

The fourth factor in a successful return to power was a determination to assure nervous voters that the party was a safe pair of hands that could be trusted. That meant Labour reassuring the City just as it meant the Tories reassuring the trade union movement, that an incoming government would be one it could work with. The reassurances given must be plausible. It also means relying on persuasion, not dogma. It requires sensitivity and tact.

And the fifth secret of a successful return was to look and sound "modern", a party of the future not the past. Labour's manifesto seemed to have been written by people who thought of the Seventies as a golden age instead of the disaster it nearly was. The stain of anti-Semitism was a particular throw-back. And it is not modern to argue that Labour ought to have a female leader because it hasn't had one before. That horse has bolted. Modern women want fair treatment based on their merits, not their X chromosomes.

This is all excellent advice for Labour and for its new leader, whoever he/she is. If Labour can learn a trick or two from Boris including his ability to make people smile, can understand how unattractive it had become to non-committed voters, adjust to Brexit as a fait accompli, work with the country in whatever way the Tories reshape it instead of resisting every step of the way, build confidence and give reassurance that its leadership is sane and reasonable, and sound like a party that understands the modern world and is comfortable in it, then Labour has a pathway back to power. And they can thank a former Tory leader for showing them how. I remain to be convinced that the person who can do all that is Rebecca "Clause Four" Long Bailey. She has too much out-of-date baggage. Sir Keir "Former DPP" Starmer, on the other hand, sounds convincing. That is a good start.

What do you think?


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