Hal Hooberman discusses the need for the Labour Party to adapt and change to reflect and represent today's electorate.
Up to the next election, the Labour Party is under strict instruction, from the electorate, to change. As a result, we must divert our attention from our own ranks to the voters. Uncomfortable moments are inevitable, moments that see the leadership diverge from some of our deepest ideals. To win back the electorate’s trust, evidence of the party’s transformation needs to be watertight, meaning any action needs to be unmistakeable, emphatic, and symbolic, even overemphasised. Such actions, also known as ‘Clause IV Moments’, will be a prerequisite of any future Labour victory. We, as the grassroots, need to understand this.
The sheer scale of the electoral mountain we face could not be clearer. The recently-published Labour Together report into our 2019 humbling pulled no punches, the party needs to increase its cohort of MPs by an unprecedented 60%, eclipsing the gains of 1997’s halcyon days. We can not waste a moment. It is beholden to our new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, to talk to the voters, not us; we must let him. Compromise is part and parcel of politics, being innate to the labour movement, electoral politics, and parliament. We must be willing to put aside our own convictions for the sake of convincing those that hold the keys to Number 10.
The Conservatives, and tenets of the press, long for a culture war, we must tread carefully. It is disheartening, and perhaps not what some are in the Labour Party for, but we have a responsibility, as the country’s sole alternative governing party, to put our own ideals aside, on occasion. This is not a matter of selling one’s soul to the devil, but it is a matter of listening, trusting, and understanding.
There are certain issues that have always bugged the Labour Party. Defence, the unions, the ‘Loony Left’, to name a few, are all classic sticks that we will always be bashed with. To overcome these entrenched perceptions, we have always had to go out of our way just to make a simple point. It is an unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless.
Our opponents have enjoyed five, even ten, years of ‘field days’. Change is in order, any shift must be emphatic, spotless, and unmistakable. It is beholden to the grassroots to, when necessary, grin and bear it. Policy tweaks, speeches, or press releases are never enough to overcome the time-long perceptions, unfair or otherwise, of being beholden to extremists or union barons, paralysed by weak leadership, or soft on law and order. To convince the electorate that we are changing, the party has always had to make emphatic, even symbolic, leaps. On these issues, prevarication is a gift to our opponents.
We must put the electorate ahead of ourselves, particularly on issues of vulnerability. We can not expect these stories to be relayed to the electorate as we wish, nuance and complexity are often shunned for shameless sensationalism. Unfortunately, it is subjective reality that matters. Political parties must speak to convert, not to the converted.
Disheartening, it may be, but we have a responsibility to put the electorate before ourselves. The labour movement has never been about satisfying the self, it is about hard-fought victories for the masses, be it electoral or industrial. Such victories always come at a cost, think of striking, dogged negotiations, and productivity commitments. We can never have it all our own way.
The Labour Party has a long history of such set-piece moments, think Gaitskell and nuclear disarmament, Kinnock and Militant, or Blair and Clause IV. Uncomfortable moments for some, but necessary to provide the watertight, unerring signification of change which, often, precedes notable shifts in our electoral fortunes. Bold acts that do not sit well with the activists are required, and there will be more to come.
Keir Starmer’s citing of calls to ‘Defund the Police’ as “nonsense” stems from this vein, as did his sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey. One could almost visualise the baying commentators, journalists, and Conservatives waiting, expectantly, for a long-overdue dosage of ‘old reliable’, a swig of ‘Classic Labour’. The headlines wrote themselves, ‘Red Keir wants to rob the police from our already-unsafe streets!’. An open goal. Any hint of nuance, however valid, would have been pounced upon. Cue an unforgiving front-page splash. A gift. It was not to be. That should be celebrated.
Decisive, unmistakable actions need to be taken. It is beholden upon us to understand this, put trust in our leadership, and stand above the rabble.
Hal Hooberman is an undergraduate, Young Fabian and member of Somerton and Frome CLP.
He tweets at @halhooberman
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