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Labour’s Decline in Working-Class Communities Can’t Be Solved by Managerialism

In recent months, No Holding Back has spoken to thousands of Labour activists in communities left behind by deindustrialisation. Their message is clear: the party must rebuild at its grassroots.

There’s a golden rule of politics, it’s not difficult to understand. Never neglect your core vote. Don’t take them for granted. Don’t assume that ancient loyalties will mean they will continue to vote for you.

It may be that the core vote is not enough to get you over the line in elections. If so then you need to reach out and win other voters. Obviously you should. But if you want to return a parliamentary majority, don’t turn your back on the working-class, those who are in poverty or  living precarious lives – because they will turn their back on you and thereby prevent a majority Labour government. 

There’s another aspect to this. When centrists colonise centre-left parties, and when working people are massively under pressure, it won’t work if the leadership only offers to manage a failing system a bit better. In these days, millions live in poverty, or in communities still recovering from a tsunami of deindustrialisation and now precarious employment. We cannot have a leadership which simply offers more “competent” management of a system which no longer works – if it ever did.

Late capitalism is in prolonged crisis. Its only survival technique is to use austerity to bear down on public services, and people’s incomes. On top of the cuts to public services, and the attacks on pensions, working people have lost something like £433 billion in wages and salaries. At the same time, the richest 1,000 people in Britain have gained £588 billion. 

Don’t just offer to be better technocrats; you will end up running a system which is attacking your core supporters. Offer radical transformation. After all, you wouldn’t attempt to de-fang a venomous snake using dental floss.

And above all don’t give the impression that you have turned a deaf ear to millions of voters who voted for a break with the status quo in a referendum. Do not launch a determined, persistent, 24/7, and high volume attack on the leadership for month after month, thereby undermining confidence of the whole nation in the party.

These were the thoughts of the No Holding Back team after the 2019 election. We had warned the Shadow Cabinet that we were heading for electoral disaster. In September 2019 we provided a list of 50 Labour seats which were in peril. 

When our predictions came to reality, we published our pamphlet ‘Northern Discomfort’ which showed that if you want to build an electoral coalition you must never, ever do what New Labour did – which was to neglect working-class Labour voters in the North and indeed throughout the country.

As Britain entered lockdown, we arranged dozens of meetings with thousands of activists right across the labour movement over Zoom. In every meeting, we broke out into smaller sessions where we listened to the views of our supporters: to party members all over the country, but also to trades unionists affiliated and non affiliated, Momentum members and Fabians, to people running foodbanks and to others operating new models of outreach into our communities.

This was the largest listening exercise involving members in the Labour movement possibly ever. We also polled every single meeting. We can be confident that we heard the heartbeat of our movement, and we learned one thing above all. Once activists had got over their heartbreak at the election result and told us of their experiences on the doorstep, there was no doubting the message that we were getting.

The Labour movement at grassroots level recognises, indeed demands, the need for dramatic renewal. Hardly anyone suggested that we ought to defuse the antipathy felt in working-class communities with a cultural response, by turning to family, flag or patriotism. The issues of greatest salience in these communities relate to people’s economic situation, the finance of public services – above all health and education – and access to decent housing at a price which is not out of reach. 

Firstly, and overwhelmingly, the people we spoke to recognised the deep divisions in our country and the need for a relentless attack on social and economic injustice by means of radical transformative change. Competent technocrats and managerialists won’t hack it.

Secondly, they acknowledged that there was a growing disaffection with out party in hard-working communities.

And thirdly, they rejected top-down politics. In doing so, they argued that there was another way forward for Labour to reconnect. There were a number of key proposals which had more or less universal approval.

Our report, published today, challenges Labour to listen to its own members and to reorganise around transformative politics but to carry out a number of specific tasks as a matter of urgency.

Some of these are: to abandon managerialism in favour of movement building by new methods of community organising, especially but not exclusively in alienated communities; to identify new generations of community leaders deeply rooted in local communities; to not regard the party as a career structure for graduates but as a movement for social justice; and, therefore, to ensure that working-class people, and others from diverse backgrounds, can become a new generation of political leaders in councils and in parliament.

Many people also said that we need to accept and to apologise that the party got it wrong in relation to our second referendum policy and Brexit. We offered Remain voters a fudge to placate them, and we turned off millions of Leave voters by appearing to reject their right to a democratic choice. We satisfied nobody and we paid the price.

Labour got it wrong on the second referendum, but that didn’t happen by chance, or because of a subjective error. It happened because of a relentless political campaign that reached into the heart of the party. An apology is perhaps the clearest way to reset our relationship with the electorate. It will also enable our party members to feel more confident to go back and speak with clarity on the doorsteps.

But the messages which the members gave us are urgent, and their more or less unanimous proposals require a response. The polling shows that there are millions of disaffected voters who might come home to Labour and who are increasingly unhappy with the Boris Johnson government.

We need to show we have got the message. The alternative is too frightening to contemplate. Because the final message which we were told is that if Labour does not reform and rebuild community links in held-back communities, then restless voters may well turn to the far-right. So, the task is urgent and the members have shown us the way. 

The torch of justice, solidarity, equality and liberty still flickers in our movement. It’s time it burst once again into full flame to light our way forward.