On the 13th December, many of us Labour members were sitting in a morbidly silent room, trying to dissect the news of our worst election defeat nearly in living memory. As the dreary noise of Richard Burgon came onto the television, we heard the exact same lines that had lost us the election campaign, over and over again. From the media fudge that we have heard over the last four years from certain sections of the Labour Party to the far-fetched promises concocted by a party that knew it was heading to electoral defeat in 2019, it became apparent that we had failed to construct an alternative narrative that people believed. We did not lose because of Brexit, or because of the timing of the election, as has been claimed by certain self-described ‘experts’. We lost because of fantastical opposition politics by a poor leadership, that consistently failed to act like a government in waiting.
It is political law that you simply cannot define an idea in broad and perceptual terms, as an abstract concept in relation to that which it opposes. The simple logic of perception dictates that the Opposition, in order to have electoral success (something which I still define as majority government) has to offer a feasible alternative rather than just defining itself as the vague opposite of that which precedes. In particular, this is increasingly important as dangerous ideas become the so-called political norms. In 1983, Michael Foot got the diagnosis of the country’s problems correct. He defined himself in opposition to Thatcher’s government, the most morally regressive Conservative government yet. In this, he started on the completely right way- though he saw mere opposition as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end which should have been a progressive Labour government. Indeed, Michael Foot did not succeed in convincing the public that he was the natural alternative to Thatcher’s policies. His radical agenda, or ‘the longest suicide note in history’, to use a now infamous phrase, was not electorally palatable on the sole merit of being wildly different to the Conservative New Right agenda. We won 26.8% of the vote in 1983, and the country had to endure more years of the heartless Thatcher government as a result.
Instead, the idea that Michael Foot’s policies were not realistic or successful, lead to one of the most damaging historical splits in the progressive movement of this country, where the Social Democratic Party was established, and fought the 1983 election as a separate party. Whilst I disagree with this split on principle, what the defectors to the Social Democratic Party had right was the very fact that abstract concepts, especially those perceived as outdated and wildly imaginative, are no guarantee of electoral success.
However, this is not a call for complete moderation, and abandonment of one’s long held broad ideological position, nor their party- the SDP, in the long run, failed in their goal to unseat the Labour Party as the main opposition to Thatcher. Even amongst the electoral disaster of 2019 for the Labour Party, neither Change UK, a party of dissenters, or the Liberal Democrats, the next home for these few breakaway MPs, failed to gain serious traction electorally. The very fact that they defined themselves solely in opposition to the Labour Party, as the face of the self-defining moderates in the party, limited their electoral success. To gauge your successes and failures in relation to other political actors sets a ceiling on your successes, and ostensibly sets you out as fighting on the terms of your predecessor, or opponent. This helps shift the narrative in favour of your opponent- policies to that which you are opposed, but have no perceived alternative, suddenly become the norm. Alternatives that are presented as a realistic break from the unworkable norms can be judged on their own merits, and this is where Labour can and will have its electoral success. Entrenched, yet unpopular political ideas very easily become the benchmark, or the yardstick which marks how the political climate defines itself, especially in the eyes of the electorate, who are essentially a perception-based political actor.
Regrettably, any serious attempt at gaining power was projected inwards by some of the more exclusivist members of the Labour Party. The hard-left wave in the party decided to define themselves in opposition to the New Labour government, and therefore the most successful government we have had of my lifetime. What they did not do was propose how power-crazed grabs within our own party would lead to progressive government. Our party became a dangerous mix of short term ego-boosting attempts to purify our message with long-term, unrealistic policy goals in our manifesto. This was the cocktail that poisoned the Labour Party, and it was administered under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
A recent article in the Financial Times by Robert Shirley posed the question of “Who did more for the most needy in society: Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Blair?” Now this question may seem simple enough to us; the man who led a successful progressive government for 10 years, taking us into the new millennium with achievable yet radical policies such as the minimum wage, SureStart and record levels of investment wins by a country mile. But this question, for many Labour members would not be so easy to answer. Leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey recently rated Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership a 10/10, and Laura Pidcock, once rumoured to be the favoured successor of Corbyn, blamed Tony Blair for her 2019 election loss. This sums up a large amount of the problems that we face as a party. The tendency to sacrifice pragmatism and progressivism for the self-applied label of radicalism is completely misguided, and reinforces the points raised earlier in this article. The Blair and Brown governments were radical, pragmatic and are responsible for the modernisation of this country. We won three elections by standing on our record, by forging a realistic path to success and by being bold enough for radical change.
What I am not suggesting is that we blindly return to the now outdated doctrines of New Labour, especially bearing in mind that I was not yet born when Tony Blair won his first term. What I am challenging Labour to do is to take the same steps that Smith, Brown and Blair took in the 1990s to learn the lessons of electoral oblivion and win back the trust of the people. This was done by positive consensus building, rather than blind factionalism and the purist rhetoric, which will keep us perpetually in opposition. We need to take lessons from this into the next Labour leadership debate. We have already seen candidates base their pitch on a claim to be anti-free market or anti-austerity, alluding to a naïve belief that certain factions within the Labour Party have a monopoly on basic tenets of Labour Party dogma. This is not the case, and this is not the pragmatic radicalism that will propel us into power.
A common alternative needs to be forged by candidates. A plan for the future needs to be outlined- one that does not fudge its way through media interviews by saying what it’s not, but indeed what it is. The Labour Party has always been the party to provide a reliable alternative, and we have seen, both in 1983 and 2019, that when a pragmatic plan fails to be produced, it is both the Party and the electorate that suffers as a result. It is most certainly a challenge, but it is a challenge that we have more than enough talent to stand up to.