Six months before the 2015 general election, some of us identified the question of “how can Labour win in England?” as an existential challenge. MPs like John Denham, Jon Cruddas and Steve Reed, PPCs including Polly Billington and Rowenna Davis, local government leaders and key Labour organisers, were actively advocating a proactive strategy for Labour in England. We saw Labour being squeezed on all sides – by a ruthlessly pragmatic Conservative party, by a populist UKIP appealing to older voters and the left-behind, by an idealistic Green party enlisting young and progressive voters. Anticipating wipe-out in Scotland, we argued that Labour needed to present a better offer to English voters.
We were ignored – but we were right. Labour won less than 32 per cent of the vote in England, while the Conservatives received 41 per cent and won more than half as many seats. The Tories made more gains in England than Labour did. Labour did best in safer seats with diverse populations, high levels of public sector employment, lower average income and higher-than-average unemployment. But in most key marginals, where it needed to surge, it suffered.
As the battleground shifts further against it, the Labour party will never again win a UK parliamentary majority unless it can transform its relationship with English voters. Here is a brief sketch of seven essential steps toward renewal. We have little time, so forgive me: I will be blunt.
First, an English Labour party must be established to engage and speak to the growing sense of English identity and interests.
Second, English Labour must engage on the European referendum. Without a distinctive English Labour voice on this vital issue, Labour risks ceding the ground of patriotism and opening itself up to an undertow that could last a generation. The cosmopolitan case for Europe is insufficient. This makes the founding of English Labour an urgent priority. The NEC should act in the coming month.
Third, English Labour must be a plural party. It must bring together its increasingly diverse constituencies in a bigger tent, and unite them through far-sighted policy, shared values and projects, and lively and constructive discussions.
Labour cannot win in England without the white working class; urban and cosmopolitan progressives; ethnic minority voters; or the striving middle classes in marginals. None of these constituencies can either be taken for granted or ceded. This diverse coalition demands a far more open, pragmatic and plural way for Labour to manage its conversations and doctrines. Even and especially if it still aspires to majority rule, Labour cannot avoid coalition politics in the 21st century.
Fourth, English Labour must be an open party. It needs first and foremost to build a deep and authentic conversation with the English people whom it seeks to represent. Labour today is mired in tribal divisions, obsessed with various dying pieties, and failing profoundly to connect with the public. English Labour must turn outward again to understand and reconnect with its fellow-citizens. Strategies like participatory assemblies, online engagement and open primaries will help to renew the party and turn it outward. Only then can it win. Only then will it deserve to win.
Fifth, English Labour must be a networked party. I know from personal experience how platforms like 38 Degrees and Change.org have been able to tap into and channel the democratic energies of millions more people than have ever engaged with the Labour Party in just a few short years. I spent some time recently with the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, which is powered by five million small donors. It has taken networked campaigning to a whole new level by empowering hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Labour’s failure to embrace these 21st century politics is chronic and shameful. Unless the party wakes up soon, insurgent forces will take its place. This is not a matter of bolt-on techniques; it is a matter of fundamental political identity and strategy. Labour needs a swift DNA transplant. A new English Labour party could be its best hope.
Sixth, English Labour must be a populist party. The desiccated, technocratic language and behaviour of too many in Labour during the last two decades has left them looking like the few, rather than rooted in the many. English Labour must be unashamedly popular and populist – engaging with culture, with identity, with anger and passion. And it must start to seriously challenge entrenched elites in the City and Westminster, while occupying the radical centre rather than painting itself into a left-wing corner.
Populism need not mean dumbing-down, compromise or appealing to people’s baser instincts. At its best, it is one of the most positive and transformative forces in politics. It begins with the apparently simple step of taking the people seriously.
Seventh, English Labour must be a party of radical common sense. Left-right ideological battles tacitly accept the status quo and turn off a wide swathe of the public. Common sense and radicalism are two of the strongest values and traditions of England, and they have never been so needed. If we harness them together, we can build a new political economy which is on the side of the people, and which deserves their passionate support. We must be passionately for enterprise and human invention. We must reinvent an entrepreneurial and enabling state, and craft a new settlement for care and social needs.
People everywhere deserve a better life. But we have forgotten how to connect with them, how to serve them, and how to win. This is the challenge of 21st century politics. And the stakes are very high.
It is increasingly clear that unless we do a better job of rising to this challenge, populist elites will seize power and hold sway – and we will have let them. They are growing stronger by the day, but they are growing into the space that we have left for them. So let’s take back our democracy and our future. Let’s start today.