Sunday, 30 August 2015

Where Next for Labour?

Kevin Hickson from the University of Liverpool presents an insightful argument for Labour's future against the backdrop of the current leadership election.

The electoral strategy for the Labour Party over the next five years is incredibly complex irrespective of who becomes Leader of the Party in September.  The aim of the following discussion is to set out in broad terms the strategy that the successful candidate ought to follow.

One response within the Party to the electoral defeat was to argue that the only way to win is by moving to the right.  This argument was made immediately after the election result with the likes of Tony Blair, Alan Milburn, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband making the argument for a revival of New Labour.  This shouldn't come as a surprise since these people and others had been critical of Ed Miliband for allegedly moving to the left.  Blair even predicted a Labour defeat earlier in the year as the election would be framed as a traditional left versus right contest.  Ed Miliband's failure was apparently in allowing the party to be positioned on the left against a populist right-wing Conservative government.  Successive election results had proven that a party of the 'left' could not win.  Only New Labour had a successful electoral strategy and any attempt to move away from it was electoral suicide.  The 'proof' of this hypothesis was the 2015 election result, where not only had Miliband lost but had performed worse than five years previously (in seats if not in vote share).  The Progress wing of the party have continued to push this political belief in the leadership contest.
 
However, such a view would be mistaken since it suggests that the electoral context is essentially that which it was in 1997.  It isn't.  The economy was at that time doing relatively well.  The Conservative government was tarnished with allegations of sleaze, divided over European integration and appeared to have weak leadership.  The election was essentially a straight contest between Conservative and Labour, albeit with support divided unequally across the country and with pockets of support for the Liberal Democrats.  Labour had been out of power for 18 years and there was an overwhelming feeling that it was time for a change.
 
This contrasts starkly with 2015.  Labour had only been out of power for five years and the Conservatives have successfully managed to pin the blame for the financial crash and subsequent budget deficit on the previous Labour government.  The Conservative party was still seen as the party most trusted on the economy.  Compared to the mid-1990s the Conservative Party was more united.  Moreover, the electoral geography was much more complex than in 1997.  Labour faced the challenge of the nationalists in Scotland from the left, from UKIP in many of its urban heartlands and the Conservatives in the English suburbs from the right.  Although UKIP was seen as more of a challenge to the Conservatives the reality was that it took more Labour votes, while the Conservatives benefited from the demise of their former Coalition partners.  Under these very different circumstances a shift to the right, rediscovering a Blairite formula, will not secure victory at the next General Election.
 
One alternative has been to argue that Labour should move to the left and the Labour left have managed to find a candidate who can articulate that viewpoint persuasively in Jeremy Corbyn.  It is argued that there is considerable voter apathy that only a left-wing leader could attract.  It is also argued that there has to be a fundamental distinction between Tory and Labour and that only by moving radically to the left can this difference be demonstrated.  Others, it has to be said, argue that what needs to happen in the Labour Party is a fundamental debate over the aims and programme for the party and that the leadership debate is an inadequate period of time in which to do this.  Even among those who support Jeremy Corbyn there is doubt that he can win the next General Election, but he would at least be a useful interim leader while the party goes back to basics they argue.
 
These view seems unsatisfactory.  It is somewhat reminiscent of a debate following the 1959 General Election defeat where Dick Crossman, on the left of the party, argued that it was better to wait in opposition for the inevitable crisis of capitalism at which point Labour could regain power and introduce genuine socialism.  Opposing this view, Tony Crosland, argued that Labour needed to be more responsible seeking to get back into office at the earliest opportunity in order to introduce measures that the working-class voters needed and would not get under a Conservative administration.  Herein lies the tension between the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility.  Judging by some of the social media comment from those supporting Corbyn any attempt to compromise with the electorate would be a betrayal of socialist principles.
 
Having dismissed both the case for moving to the right and for moving to the left it is now necessary to set out a more viable electoral and political strategy for Labour.  It would be easy for those who want to see the party change radically from what it had become under Ed Miliband to argue that anything else would be a defence of the same failed strategy which resulted in a majority Conservative government in 2015.
 
It is, however, possible to argue that Labour needs to change fundamentally without going sharply leftwards or rightwards.  It is the central argument of this pamphlet that Labour needs to be more confident and more competent and this is what we seek to outline below.
 
Inevitably there will be much that will change between now and the next election, which will likely be in 2020.  It would be unwise, therefore, for Labour to rush into adopting certain detailed policy positions now that may well be outdated by 2020.  It does, however, need to set out a clear vision.  The party needs both a message and a programme.  The message is a broad idea of the party's ideology and the ability to communicate this articulately and in a way which is relevant to the electorate.  It needs to be able to say what difference a Labour government will make.  The key differences in outlook between the two parties.  The different way that the country would look after five years of majority Labour rule than how it would look if there was another Tory government.  This is inevitably an ideological issue and Labour should not shy away from its ideological beliefs.  Truly successful governments are ones that transform the political landscape.  Arguably the last Labour government, despite its electoral successes and lasting policy impact, failed to do this meaning that we still operate under a neo-liberal paradigm more suitable to the Conservatives than a reforming Labour government.  Blair's insistence that 'what matters is what works' failed to address the question of work in whose interests.  Labour, irrespective of who the next leader is, needs to set out more successfully than Miliband did the essential features of the party's ideology.
 
At this early stage in the electoral cycle it isn't necessary to make detailed policy proposals.  There is plenty of time for these to come as circumstances change as we get nearer to the next General Election.  All policy proposals need to fit into the broad ideological narrative.  It is, however, possible at this stage to set out the broad themes of Labour's programme as we see it. 
 
There are four broad areas:

·        Rebalancing the economy - the need to reduce the budget deficit is clear but this can be done through more progressive forms of taxation and growth and not just through cuts to frontline public services.  Moreover, there needs to be a wider focus on the rebalancing of the economy both regionally and sectorally.  It was foolish of Labour to be put in a position whereby the Conservative Chancellor could claim to be leading the way on the revival of the economy in the north of England.  Labour needs to develop modern regional and industrial policies and champion a genuine living wage.

·        Reintegrating public services - the Coalition reforms have led to the fragmentation of public services.  Labour should stand for the reintegration of public services including health and social care, and the revival of the comprehensive principle in education.  In order to do this Labour needs to empower local government and revive the idea of the mixed economy with greater public control, if not ownership of public utilities and public transport.

·        A responsible welfare state - Labour needs to restore public trust in the welfare state.  This means tackling some issues which the left have traditionally found difficult such as those who abuse the system.  This does not mean, however, demonising those who are vulnerable.  Labour has to champion a more humane welfare state than the one created by Iain Duncan Smith.  But it also means recognising work through a more contributory scheme above the national minimum.

·        Reviving a liberal national identity - again this is an issue where the right has made much of the running in recent years but the left has a story to tell.  British values can reasonably be interpreted as more liberal than the right would allow.  The positives of immigration should be spelt out - both culturally and economically - but the party also needs to recognise concern over numbers and to say so isn't bigoted.  Not only does this mean having tighter controls, but more importantly tackling those unscrupulous employers who seek to exploit immigrant labour.  There is a case here for empowering trades unions.  Labour should also have pledged a referendum on EU membership before the 2015 General Election but its failure to do so means that the Conservatives and UKIP could portray Labour as being suspicious and contemptuous of the electorate.  Now that the referendum will take place Labour has been right to say it will campaign separately from the Conservatives and to campaign for continued membership.

 So my criticism is not so much with the broad ideological position of the last Labour leader but rather his inability to articulate that position convincingly.  It is worth spending some time thinking about why he was unable to do this.  Popular perceptions of Ed Miliband, fuelled persistently by the right-wing press, tended to focus on the nature of his election and on his 'other-worldliness'.  The level of commentary often concentrated on the trivial, such as his facial expression when eating a bacon sandwich and the widely expressed opinion that somehow he had 'stabbed his brother in the back'.  More profoundly than this was the fact that he had failed to secure a majority of MP's, many of whom supported his brother believing that he would be the eventual successor.  In-depth journalism since the election defeat stressed internal divisions over message and strategy among the close-knit group of advisors and frequent discontent in the Parliamentary Labour Party among those who had not wanted Ed to be Leader in the first place.  In other words, Ed Miliband faced a number of constraints as a result of the nature of his election as leader, ones which he failed to overcome.  The message was often confused and at times, even during the election campaign, Labour appeared not to have simple answers to key questions on the economy, tax and immigration.  The party failed to rebut the Tory message that they were sorting out 'Labour's mess' on the economy unsure whether to embrace austerity or growth and settling on an uneasy compromise which the electorate could not be blamed for not understanding.
 
So from the earliest stage the new Labour leader, whoever he or she is, needs to begin to set out the message much more robustly, coherently and consistently.  Our electoral analysis shows that targeting certain sections of the population based on social class, gender, age or geography with certain policies, or 'retail offers', is inadequate.  Labour needs to appeal to a broad cross-section of the electorate by articulating a clear set of values from which the policies derive.
 
What are these values?
 
The likely impact of five more years of Conservative government will be a country which is more divided, unjust and unequal.  Studies have already shown that the number of people living in poverty is increasing, the use of food banks looks set to rise even further and the gap between rich and poor will grow.  Many people will see the further erosion of job security with the expansion of zero-hours contracts.  The policy of allowing social housing tenants to buy their homes will further erode the stock of social homes while others will lose their homes through the 'Bedroom Tax'.  Those on social security payments will face further tightening of what many observers feel to be an overly harsh system already.  The realisation that there is a growing social and economic divide in Britain will likely exacerbate social tensions.  The populist right will seek to exploit tensions over immigration while the right-wing press will continue to blame immigrants and welfare claimants for the country's ills.
 
In response Labour needs to set out its traditional values of equality and social justice.  It needs to stress the virtue of politics as an activity underpinned by ethical values and using the power of the state - nationally, regionally and locally - to achieve a more just and equal society and a more balanced and stable economy.  The party should be internationalist, making the positive case for continued membership of the European Union and international aid and development against the isolationism of UKIP and an increasing number of Conservatives.  But it should also be patriotic in stressing that these values are British values, not the fear and hate peddled by those on the right of the political spectrum.
 
A series of retail offers is therefore inadequate and will fail to ignite the sense of hope and optimism which is required to overcome Tory cynicism.  But that does not mean that trends in voting behaviour should be ignored.  Labour failed in 2015 in particular key demographics, particularly those over 65 and suburban voters who aren't directly affected by some of the policies Labour offered such as the Living Wage or the Bedroom Tax.  We need to tailor the presentation of our core values to the electoral realities.  There are the working poor to whom Labour values directly resonate but also those who are comfortable but face squeezed living standards and worry about losing their jobs in the current economic climate and those pensioners who fear having to face the costs of social care which in many areas is inadequate.
 
In other words Labour talked about the squeezed middle but formulated very few policies which directly affected their concerns.  So Labour needs to have a wider appeal without abandoning our core values.
 
Finally, Labour needs to appear not just confident but also competent.  Labour failed to find a clear alternative argument on the economy or to defend the economic legacy of the last Labour government.  The Conservatives ruthlessly and effectively drove home the message that it was 'Labour's mess' that they were clearing up.  This message is still being made.  There needs to be a simple and effective alternative narrative about the need to rebalance the economy and to achieve a higher rate of economic growth.  Again, the best way of doing this is through a clear and confident exposition of Labour's core values.  Inequality, on the scale that exists today, is not only socially unjust but also fosters economic instability with increased financial risk in return for ever higher bonuses, short-term gain over long-term investment and credit bubbles.  Labour needs to make the argument that greater equality leads to economic stability and refute the right-wing argument that a trade off exists between equality and wealth creation.
 
One temptation at this time is to argue that Labour should move to the right, seeking to recreate the winning formula of the mid-1990s or that the party cannot win without moving ever closer to the Conservatives.  The alternative temptation is to argue that we lost on a moderately social democratic platform as the differences between Labour and the Tories were not clear enough.  Therefore, the party should move to the left believing that a coalition of support exists there which is big enough to win the next General Election.  The evidential basis for both positions is weak.
 
The most likely electoral winning strategy is to be coherent, competent and confidentCoherence means having a clear narrative on the economy, one able to overcome the likelihood of continuing Conservative attacks on the 'failed' policy of the last Labour government.  Competence involves having a leader who is an effective communicator, who has a more popular touch and having a team who are loyal and well briefed.  Finally, and arguably most importantly, confidence means believing in the core values of the party and being able to advocate them in a way which is relevant to the electorate.  It is often assumed, and certainly those who believe that the party should go radically right or left would tend to reinforce this, that there is a trade off between power and principle.  That the party should either abandon its core principles in order to get into office, or at least remain silent about them in the hope that the electorate fails to spot them; or that there should be no compromise and that it is more noble to stay in opposition and remain true to core ideological principles.  Both views are wrong.  The best, if not the only way for Labour to win the next election is to remain true to its core values and have the confidence to articulate them effectively.  Labour can win in 2020, despite having an electoral mountain to climb, but it can only do so if it makes the right choices now.
 
 
Kevin Hickson is the leader of Crewe Town Council and stood as Labour's PPC candidate in East Yorkshire. He is also a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, where he researches British politics and ideologies. He tweets at @Kevin_Hickson.

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