What is Labour’s place in a new political landscape? This is the question the party must seek to answer as it comes to terms with its shocking electoral defeat. Labour’s current challenge is unique – both in terms of its history, with so many of the old political certainties no more, and compared with its political rivals. Labour is the only party who needs to fight seriously on all geographical fronts, to unite voters across an increasingly disparate kingdom. And the party must conduct fleet-footed guerrilla warfare against a wide range of political insurgents, all the while opposing the old enemy – in the shape of the first Conservative majority government of the 21st century. Labour must simultaneously appear a serious party of government and a compelling radical force.
This is clearly a difficult circle to square. Seeing it as a binary conundrum about which way to march along a left-right spectrum not only fails to appreciate the complexities of modern democracies, but also suggests attracting some voters will mean repelling others. Instead, Labour must venture along a more winding path and seek to redefine what it’s for. What is the role of this party, in this place, at this time? Either we have a good enough answer to that question, and we begin to win back people’s trust. Or we don’t – and Labour faces an uncertain future.
Because one of the clear lessons from Labour’s defeat is that when people retreated to the quiet of the ballot box, just themselves with their hopes and fears before them, ultimately they couldn’t bring themselves to put their faith in Labour. When it comes down to it, people are not really voting for a particular policy or person. To the extent that people know what’s in a party manifesto, they probably don’t believe it will be delivered anyway. What people are making is a judgement on the instincts of a political party and the extent to which they feel they align with their own. On the manifold number of unpredictable events and issues that will occur over a five year parliament, will this particular group of politicians be guided by instincts that are the same as mine? Does Labour have credible common cause with the people of this country?
To unlock this, Labour must find a way to combine competence and excitement. This will require a sensible centre anchoring a radical movement. A national leadership that exudes calm credibility, on the economy, on security, on public services – that looks and feels like it will manage the country’s affairs in a manner that seems reasonable to most people. A party in Westminster that looks creatively to the future, with an optimistic story about how we will collectively overcome the challenges we face.
Beyond that, power must be decentralised as far and as wide as possible, drawing on local, radical traditions, so the Labour party once again becomes embedded in particular places and present in people’s lives. This means vibrant and distinct English, Scottish and Welsh Labour parties, but also letting local CLPs off the leash. It is through empowered local leadership that Labour can find its place in modern Britain – and that will mean different things in different parts of the country. The country is quite obviously too diverse for this to be set from the centre; we must no longer be seeking to craft a uniform programme under the direction of a heroic leader. Instead, a new leader must seek to do fewer, bigger things: establish in the clearest possible terms Labour’s purpose and define the broad parameters of its offer – and then let Labour flourish across the country.
This article appears in the Summer 2015 Fabian Review, available from our bookshop for £4.95
Image: © Kenn Goodall / bykenn.com