Lessons From the Election: A Government in Waiting

In the first article of a three-part series, Alex discusses Labour Party strategy following their election defeat.

Let’s not sugar coat it - the General Election result in 2019 was disastrous for all of us who have been working towards securing a Labour government. But it will not be the readers of this blog post who will be most affected by Labour’s failure to win the election. I am reminded of this every day when I see scores of homeless people battling to keep warm in the winter weather as I walk to work. These are the people who need a Labour government most – the homeless, the marginalised, the struggling. Our nurses, our single mothers, each and every person who relies on public services in this country. 

Our defeat means that those people will now have to wait for at least another five years before a Labour government can attempt to fix the damage caused by over a decade of Tory austerity. There will be no snap election this time. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act coupled with Boris Johnson’s overall majority of 80 means that this government will not collapse as the previous one did. Whether we like it or not, we are now stuck with Boris Johnson until 2024 at the earliest.

There is no doubt that the election was fought on Boris Johnson’s terms. He called the shots, he set the date and he fought the election on the issue that the Conservatives knew they could win on - Brexit. In contrast, in the run-up to the election the Labour Party was languishing in opinion polls and divided internally by anti-Semitism, factionalism and re-selection campaigns. It was hardly a recipe for success. 

But that campaign is now over. We need to draw a line under it and put all of our energy into the future of our Party. While there are vitally important council and mayoral elections to win in the coming years, our Party’s main focus has to be on the next General Election in 2024.  How can the Labour Party get into power and into a position to transform people’s lives for the better?

This will not be an easy or short-term fix. In fact, barring a landslide of historic proportions, if the Labour Party is to remove the Conservatives as the party of government in 2024 we will almost certainly have to govern in coalition. This post is the first in a series of three, outlining three simple lessons that we can learn from the General Election campaign and its aftermath to ensure that we do not suffer yet another humiliating defeat in the next general election on 2 May 2024. 

The first lesson that we need to learn after the election is that the Labour Party must now shed its image as a party of protest and become a government in waiting by rebuilding trust with the electorate. 

As a Party we have been quick to point the finger as to why people did not vote Labour at the last election. The truth is that people did not vote Labour for a whole multitude of reasons. It is far too simplistic to blame our defeat purely on the Leadership or on Brexit or even the ‘biased right-wing press’ (see the second post in this series). Ultimately, the Labour Party did not win the last election because the electorate did not trust us to govern as a result of a combination of these factors. 

Rebuilding that trust is our first and most important task. In doing so we must modify our approach to opposition politics. The electorate want us to become a government in waiting not merely a party of protest. 

Sadly, this starts with Brexit. I appreciate that most of us (including me) fought in the 2016 EU Referendum to remain and have subsequently hoped for a chance of a second referendum. That chance has gone for the time being and while our fight on the EU may come again, for now we cannot be seen to frustrate Brexit. The temptation will be to vote against whatever deal the government secures but we must take a more measured approach. We should and indeed have to fight to ensure that this government secures the best possible trade deal with the EU. A deal that provides protections for both the environment and workers’ rights. However, we must accept the result of the referendum and the General Election last year. Failure to do so would give Boris Johnson his first line of attack at the 2024 election. He will tell the electorate, “You voted twice to leave the EU but Labour still did not listen”. 

This approach must also shape our record in opposition. Since the General Election and even in the early hours of Polling Night, leading Shadow Cabinet figures have endorsed the idea that the Labour Party should now become a mass movement focussed on protest and causing disruption to the Tories wherever possible. Let me be clear, we are not going to give this Conservative government an easy ride. We need to provide effective opposition and we need to hold Boris Johnson to account. That said, becoming a ‘party of protest’ will not help us win the next election. In fact, it will deter the very voters that we need to win back in 2024. 

Instead of becoming a party of protest, we need to become the party that listens. We need to reach out now to those seats that we need to win if we are to secure a majority at the next General Election. We need to win seats in local council elections and govern well in those areas in which we already hold power. Namely, we need to show the electorate that we are a government in waiting and can be trusted to govern.

The campaign for the next General Election starts now. The Labour Party needs to ready itself so that when the next election comes it can be fought on our terms not on Boris Johnson’s. This country is on its knees after 10 years of Tory austerity and they have already secured another five years in charge. We cannot let them have another five after that. 

Alex is an employment solicitor and a Young Fabian member.

Do you like this post?