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Labour’s Deeper Reflection

Labour should respond to the general election defeat by looking back not a month or a year, but over the past two decades – to what it did in government, in opposition and in response to Britain's emerging constitutional crises.

Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) has begun its review of the general election campaign to identify what went wrong and what lessons we must learn for the future. It is vital that the investigation is not confined just to the past couple of years.

The outcome of every election since 2015 has its root in the decades that came before, so the investigation must be a far-reaching, forensic examination going back over the past 20 years or so. We need to understand where we have come from and what has changed politically and demographically since at least 1997. Of course, there are a number of specific issues relating to the 2017 and 2019 campaign strategies that must be confronted, but we cannot evaluate these outside the framework of a broader review.

I joined the Labour Party forty-five years ago. I have supported every Labour leader throughout that time. Some I have agreed with politically, others less so. Nevertheless I have always respected the democratic choice of the membership. This is a fundamental part of being a Labour member and a tradition I intend to continue. As we face another Labour leadership campaign it is important that we analyse and evaluate what went wrong – and how we rebuild unity.

The Legacies of Government

Social media is awash with claims and counterclaims about what went wrong. It seems that regardless of political perspectives, many members consider the primary reason for the failure to be either Jeremy Corbyn or our Brexit position, or in some cases both. The answer is in fact much more complex and requires detailed consideration. 

The 1997 election which returned a Labour government with a massive majority was a watershed election, one which opened the door for the Labour Party to transform society. After the Thatcher years, the steelworkers and miners’ strikes, Wapping, record unemployment and privatisation, people wanted change and were ready for radical action.

We can be proud of much that was achieved by Labour during those early years: devolution, the Human Rights Act, the minimum wage, income protection for pensioners, equality and civil rights legislation, improved welfare benefits and support for families and children, the Northern Ireland peace process and much more.

However, when we reflect on that period, and in particular the size of the Labour majority and the country’s appetite for change, it is clear that there is so much more that could and should have been done. We have never properly analysed those failings and the legacy they leave us to this day.

For example, PFI was an economic disaster and continues to be a millstone around the neck of the English NHS and many English local authorities and public bodies (the Welsh Labour Government fortunately did not follow the PFI route). Housing is another. Despite all the evidence at the time, our failure to tackle the emerging housing shortage that followed the Tories’ mass sell-off of council housing and our own forced transfer of most of what was left, means that today’s homelessness crisis is also part of our legacy. It is only recently that local councils, who have responsibility for housing, have been able to start building council houses again.

Devolution was never properly thought through. The failure to adopt a strategic constitutional reform programme for the whole of the UK, and in particular England, along the lines recommended by the 1974 Kilbrandon Royal Commission has left us with a dysfunctional constitution. During the 2014 Scottish devolution referendum it was telling that no-one seemed able to adequately articulate what the purpose of the United Kingdom was. Since then, Brexit has further strained the fabric of the UK and will continue to do so until we have come up with a solution.

We must also recognise that in our haste to be seen as ‘business friendly’ during our period of government, we helped create a context in which the free-marketeers were emboldened. In England we can see the inevitable result in the Tories’ massive expansion of private medicine and continued programme of NHS privatisation.

Our last Labour government failed to legislate to support and protect the process of collective bargaining and efforts by organised labour to restore the balance between employers and workers. We could have established a legislative framework for ethical employment which would have limited and countered the growth of zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment. So obsessed were we with our business friendly image that we failed to recognise the inevitable drive to a low-wage, low terms and conditions, non-union workforce. 

Labour was complicit in the undermining of access to justice by failing to recognise its fundamental importance to the empowerment of some of the poorest, most vulnerable individuals and communities. To our shame, we contributed to a process which subsequently enabled the Tories to emasculate the entire legal aid advice and support system.

Much of the turmoil and division in our society is a consequence of increasing inequality. This is not just a Labour problem clearly, but when in power we failed to take the necessary steps to restore a balance. We chose not to put the case for redistribution of excessive wealth through robust inheritance tax and capital gains tax thresholds, higher income tax thresholds for the highest earners and a proper wealth tax. Our failure to adequately tackle offshore and corporate tax avoidance were fundamental mistakes, perhaps shielded at the time by a period of economic growth but which nevertheless contributed to the exacerbations of the regional socio-economic divisions we see today.

After Blair

The political philosophy underpinning the last Labour government’s strategy was one based on controlling the political centre ground. As a result policy became increasingly focus group-orientated and subject to political spin. There was also a prevalent view that the traditional working-class vote would always vote for us because there was no real alternative. 

In reality, the decline in our support in traditional working-class communities had already begun and really took hold from 2001. Turnout reduced as working-class voters felt the party was no longer interested in them. Arguably, the party no longer looked or sounded like them either, as MP ranks became increasingly swollen with special advisors and other career politicians and less representative of working-class communities. The ‘there’s no point in voting, you’re all the same’ response became increasingly common as many from working-class communities failed to see any obvious change or improvement in their situation. Those that did vote were still predominantly Labour, but increasingly with little enthusiasm or conviction. 

The growth of the far-right BNP, displaced in more recent years by the ‘BNP-lite’ UKIP, became an increasing threat to which we did not have a satisfactory answer. We must recognise that their anti-immigration messages and flag-waving nationalism were attractive to many Labour voters. For years, we failed to adequately challenge them and when we did it was too little too late.

Essentially, our hardcore Labour vote was decreasing year by year while the softer Labour vote was growing – but was also extremely vulnerable to alternative and tactical voting. This erosion of our vote, for many different reasons, is a process which ultimately reached its tipping point with Brexit.

In 2015 many argued that we had reached rock-bottom as a party. A top-down undemocratic party structure, a declining and ageing membership which had fallen well below 200,000, ten million pounds in debt and virtually wiped out in Scotland. As a party we were disintegrating, obsessed with political spin and polling in the mid to upper twenties.

What we believed in and what we stood for became increasingly difficult to explain. In short, we were heading towards the same political disintegration being experienced by many other social-democratic parties across Europe that had drifted away from socialist principles to embrace aspects of neoliberalism and monetarist economics. 

The Tories increasingly occupied territory which was naturally ours: on same-sex marriage, on Lords reform and on the environment. Following the 2015 defeat a majority in the shadow cabinet even decided to support the appalling Tory Welfare Reform Bill. This was a turning point for many in the party. We had had enough. It could not go on. 

It was therefore not surprising that when the Labour leadership campaign began, the majority of contenders struggled to come up with clear vision for the future of the country, apart from a somewhat-reluctant candidate from the backbenches: Jeremy Corbyn.

His project has now been defeated – but we must understand where it came from and what it brought. His election as leader led to a re-empowerment of party conference, a dramatic increase in membership to over 550,000, and inspired the active and the enthusiastic support of huge numbers of young people. Most importantly, it restored a sense of purpose and vision to the Labour Party.

The Rise and Fall of Corbynism

We must take time to reflect on 2019’s defeat – but suggestions that we simply revert to being a centrist party would be a disaster. The idea that there is even a clearly identifiable centre in British politics today is illusory.

We must a draw the distinction between tactical and strategic mistakes. Whereas many of our policies were individually popular, our scatter gun approach to delivery meant that we were unable to present clarity as to what our priorities were, how people would benefit and how we would fund them. 

Our critical review must define who we are as a party and our core principles. We must define our vision for the nations of the UK and our constitution, and analyse the key reasons why some of our traditional supporters have increasingly been losing trust in us. We must then decide how we are to build engagement internally and externally, with voters and with our natural campaigning allies in the trades unions, socialist societies and the wider political environment.

Evaluation of our leadership style over the past four years must be balanced against the facts. Despite all the odds and predictions and all the internal divisions, Labour under Corbyn in 2017 achieved a significantly higher percentage vote than in any of the preceding three elections under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. In fact he received over 3 million more votes than Tony Blair in 2005.

The result in 2017 astonished many but masked the fact that many traditional Labour voters had already deserted the party. This was compensated by a significant increase in younger voters, many of whom were inspired to engage in politics by the Corbyn message. It was noticeable during canvassing even in this election that younger voters were predominantly Labour supporters whereas voters over 50 were increasingly less supportive and a greater anti-Corbyn factor.

By 2019, Corbyn was no longer a ‘surprise package’. The tabloid media demonisation and vilification of Corbyn switched into overdrive. The relentless attacks and misrepresentations became increasingly influential. Regrettably, some of the damage was self-inflicted. Very few Labour people believe that Corbyn is an antisemite, but most concede that the failure to adequately close down this issue by taking clear, decisive action meant that our opponents were able to label us in this way. For a party which has done so much work in furthering an anti-racist agenda, this was a significant blow both electorally and psychologically for members, some of whom had devoted their lifetimes to campaigning against racism. 

A similar perceived lack of clarity over Brexit, from the time of the European elections onwards, played into the anti-Corbyn narrative. Both these issues helped set the scene for a political crisis which continued through to the general election, where it contributed to a lack of confidence in Labour’s ability to lead the country. The party felt Brexit was a lose-lose issue, dividing our base in impossible ways. As a result, we hedged and adopted a hopelessly complex response to the Tories’ simple promise to ‘Get Brexit Done.’ Consequently, the attempt to shift the debate away from Brexit onto policy issues to which the public were sympathetic failed. It was a major strategic failure of the campaign.

There were also many who were seduced by the People’s Vote campaign into a belief that the Remain supporting vote was larger and more resilient than proved to be the case. As things turned out, it was overwhelmed by the dogged resilience of the Brexit vote, the votes of those who supported Remain but wanted the result implemented and the large number of voters who just wanted an end to the Brexit saga. Many of these were former Labour voters who decided either not to vote or to support the Tories. There were enough of these to ensure that a significant number of former Labour seats changed hands.

Although the tabloid media do not have the power they once had, they were nevertheless increasingly instrumental in leading and setting the news agenda. The legacy of internal civil war between the majority of the party and a relatively small rump of disaffected Labour MPs who could never come to terms with the members’ choice of leader confirmed an old mantra: divided parties do not win elections. 

In 2019 the Labour vote fell from 2017 levels by around eight per cent. It was the concentration of lost votes in seats Labour held for decades which led to such a severe defeat.

The Future

In order to reconnect with the country and voters our party structure must radically change. We have a centralised structure designed for a two-party, first-past-the-post voting system which is no longer effective or sustainable in an increasingly devolved and decentralised United Kingdom.

Our national executive committee is not balanced regionally. There is no provision for regional CLP representation. Wales and Scotland have no specific membership-elected representation. Party structure and organisation is substantially under the direction of the UK party. Campaigning in general elections is insufficiently flexible and overcentralised.

This matters a great deal. During the campaign it was bizarre to see a UK-wide TV hustings take place in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, where we have a Welsh Labour First Minister and Government, in which the SNP were represented by their First Minister, Plaid Cymru by its leader but Labour represented by an English member of the Shadow Cabinet who clearly knew little about what was happening in Wales. It was a strategic mistake which must not be repeated.

I believe that it is time to develop a federal structure for our party with proper representation for the regions of England, Wales, Scotland and also Northern Ireland. Welsh and Scottish Labour must now become autonomous within a federal UK Labour Party. Being able to effectively utilise our regional and national strengths is key to future campaigning success.

In the current leadership contest, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament members, as well as local government leaders, have no say in the nomination process. This contributes to a perception of Anglo-centrism and over-centralisation, as well as an inability to take advantage of the substantial local knowledge and campaign resource that we have in our regions and nations.

Welsh Labour has long argued for a constitutional convention to create a new structure for the United Kingdom based on a voluntary union of nations. I was pleased to see Clive Lewis take up this call as part of his leadership bid. This is a demand which is becoming increasingly undeniable. The UK will not survive in its current form. Unless a new purpose to the existence of the UK is put at the cornerstone of our constitution, the Union will disintegrate.

The impact of the 2019 result was devastating, and many Welsh members are still coming to terms with the loss of seats in Bridgend and North Wales to the Tories. But we must gather all our resources for the most honest and far-reaching analysis of where we are, what brought us here and what our future direction should be. The task is significant, but the reality is that time is short.

In just 18 months we face elections in Wales and Scotland. In Scotland it will become a referendum on independence and, if the SNP are perceived to have won legitimacy for this aspiration, the possible break-up of the UK. In Wales, our objective is to retain the only Labour government in the UK. Despite the impact of Tory austerity, we will fight to continue building on our success in introducing a range of progressive social and economic policies many of which were in the UK Labour manifesto.

Despite the scale of the challenge, we should also consider that there are positives to build on. We have developed a comprehensive range of socialist policies which have support across all the main leadership contenders. Our objective must now be to prioritise the most important of them, and then campaign to communicate, explain and win support in the wider community.

We are now the largest political party in Europe with a massive lead among younger voters. We must not lose the support of this generation, many of whom have been inspired by Corbyn’s vision. Our responsibility is to promote our socialist values and deliver an agenda for change which will win. A simplistic return to the economic policies of the past will fail. The world has changed and we must continue to change with it if we are to take on the two great challenges of the coming decade: climate change and inequality.

Only an honest, comprehensive analysis, not just of the 2019 election, but the elections of the preceding two decades, can give us the perspective required to once again say with confidence that we truly can represent and speak for the many.