Monday, 25 May 2015

The Future for Labour

Kevin Hickson reflects on his experiences of contesting a safe Conservative seat as a Labour candidate.

On May 7th I contested the safe Conservative seat of East Yorkshire for the Labour Party.  This was my first entry into national politics having been a local councillor for two years previously.  Every seat is different and as such care must be taken in extrapolating wider lessons for the Labour Party as it begins the task of examining what went wrong and where it goes from here.

The result in East Yorkshire was mixed.  The main aim, in which I was successful, was in taking the Labour Party back into second place having slipped below the Liberal Democrats five years previously.  I also secured a modest increase in Labour's vote share.  As with all other candidates in the constituency and across the country I took the opinion polls as being more or less accurate.  This, of course, proved not to be the case.  I expected the Liberal Democrat vote to fall and most of that to come to me.  I suspect it did, but what was less predictable was the extent to which UKIP took votes from Labour - far more than they did from the Conservatives.  The Tory vote held firm, in fact increased slightly giving the incumbent over 50% of the vote.

Nationally, of course, Labour did badly.  Hit hard by the swing to the Scottish National Party in Scotland and to UKIP, and to a lesser extent the Greens, in England Labour's electoral strategy is now far more complicated than it was in the 1990s.

The Blairites were quick to criticise the leadership of Ed Miliband in the days immediately after the election defeat.  Never their choice for the leadership in 2010 they remained opposed to the direction in which he led the party and argued that they had been proven right after the election defeat.  Only by returning to the previously successful New Labour formula could Labour recover power.  Since then numerous leadership contenders have appeared to denounce Ed Miliband's leadership and offer to move the party back towards the 'aspirational' voters of Middle England they lost to the Conservatives. In the immediate context of the 2015 election defeat this argument appears enticing.  However, to move in that direction would be a mistake, for it assumes that the electoral context is the same or similar to what it was in the run up to 1997 and 2001.  It isn't.

The first reason for this is that there are clear left-wing alternatives to Labour across the country.  The reason why the SNP did so well is not because Labour was too left-wing, but that it was radical enough.  Equally the same argument can be made for how Labour should respond to Plaid Cymru and the Greens.  Moreover, although this may appear counterintuitive, it is also the most sensible way to respond to the challenge of UKIP.  Although a proportion of UKIP voters are undoubtedly right-wing, voting in the way they did because they switched from the BNP or the Tories, a large proportion were also from the 'left behind', those who felt that the Labour Party no longer spoke for them.

This is the dilemma that the next Labour leader faces.  I believe that Ed Miliband had the right instincts and that is why I voted for him to be Leader.  However, he struggled to present a clear alternative.  Offering the voters only slightly less austerity is not the way to enthuse them.  Refusing to offer a referendum on continued European Union membership was also a mistake for the pro-European argument must be put and allowed Labour's political opponents to say that Labour was contemptuous of the electorate.

So this isn't about moving left or right.  To the disillusioned working-class voters of towns such as Bridlington the terms left and right don't mean much anyway.  But it does mean that Labour has to offer a clear alternative perspective from the Conservatives offering a message of hope, and must do so in a style and language which resonates with the wider public that Labour now needs to appeal to.

Labour cannot win a majority next time unless it appeals to the voters who went from Labour to the SNP.  To become too English-centric at this time would be electorally disastrous.  To offer one message for Scotland and another for England (and perhaps another for Wales) would be opportunistic.  So the only viable strategy for Labour across Britain, borne out by my experiences in East Yorkshire, is to offer a bold message including endorsing an EU referendum, a clear policy on immigration, a defence of public services and an alternative approach to the economy.

Kevin Hickson is Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool and was Labour's Parliamentary candidate for East Yorkshire.  His opinions expressed in this article are very much his own!

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