In an otherwise less than stellar series of local election results, Labour did rather better in the mayoral elections, particularly those in London and Bristol. There are good reasons why Sadiq Khan and Marvin Rees won in their respective cities and why Labour did so very badly in Scotland. Nobody except Diane Abbott really believes that Khan won in London because of Jeremy Corbyn and I’m not sure that even she means it to any serious extent. Khan ran a campaign where he spoke to all sections of society and not just in safe Labour areas.
At what may be the lowest ebb of this Tory government, Labour only defeated the Tories on the actual share of the vote by 1%, its own share down seven points from the high watermark of Ed Miliband’s time as Labour leader. Wait a minute, though: seven points down on Miliband’s high watermark? Is that the limit of Labour’s ambitions, merely to hang on to most of its councillors and be obliterated in Scotland? The ambition of Labour to match one of the least successful leaders in its history? I hope not.
We have referred previously to the British attitudes survey from 2015 where 20% of the public defined themselves as either very ‘left wing’ or ‘left wing’. A further 15% said they were ‘centre left, giving us a grand total of 35% of the entire electorate with the other 65% being centre or of the various shades right. You do wonder if this was what Ed Miliband sought to achieve at the 2015 general election with his 35% strategy. To get the ‘core’ vote out, giving Labour a narrow majority at Westminster. It didn’t work, though, did it? Most of us on the left probably knew that Miliband wasn’t going to win from years out from the election. I wanted him to win but in the end the electorate said they didn’t see him as PM.
In Scotland last week, Labour tacked to the left of the SNP, which is less difficult than you might imagine. You cannot deny the huge support Nicola Sturgeon and her party enjoy north of the border, but you can question how left wing they really are and I think the answer is not very. Scottish Labour came out in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament – already SNP policy – but also raising taxes to pay for better public services and guess what? Their vote collapsed and the Conservatives are now the official opposition. Grim days. And the feeling is, among many, that the SNP message is ‘If you hate the English, vote SNP’. I have no idea how widespread this feeling is, but that’s what some Scots have said to me. One thing is for sure: Labour is on life-support in Scotland and boy how much the Tories and their friends in the right wing media are loving it.
Sadiq Khan is a winner. He set out his London manifesto right at the start, letting the people know who he was and what he was for. He also spoke to people who didn’t agree with him at the start, but turned out to support him on election day itself. I know London is not typical of anywhere else in the land but its diverse and intelligent electorate knew a good man when they saw one.
Khan and his team got the Labour core vote out plus those from the centre left and the centre. This is what he said in yesterday’s Observer:
“First, Labour only wins when we face outwards and focus on the issues that people care about; second, we will never be trusted to govern unless we reach out and engage with all voters – regardless of their background, where they live or where they work.
“Squabbles over internal structures might be important for some in the party, but it is clear they mean little or nothing to the huge majority of voters. As tempting as it might be, we must always resist focusing in on ourselves and ignoring what people really want.
“It should never be about ‘picking sides’, a ‘them or us’ attitude, or a having a political strategy to target just enough of the population to get over the line. Our aim should be to unite people from all backgrounds as a broad and welcoming tent – not to divide and rule.”
And finally this. Labour would be “doomed to fail” unless it attracted people who might have voted for other parties, like the Conservatives, in the last election.
Jeremy Corbyn has proved to be very good at speaking to those who already agree with him. He has done little else throughout his political life as a career backbencher. There is rarely a major protest meeting where he is not in attendance telling people what they want to hear. Fair enough. And he has always been a free spirit in the House of Commons, voting against the Labour government more often than David Cameron. In short, he is good at speaking with that group of the electorate that share his political views, that 20% of the left and far left. This will not win a general election.
I do not believe Labour going to the polls on a hard left, nuclear disarming, anti-business, nationalising party can secure a majority in the House of Commons. It is a hard truth that Labour will need to be trusted to run the economy and to keep the country safe. They are a long way from that now.
If Labour can guarantee support from the 20% left wingers in the land, what of the rest? I am not sure that a hard left party, locked in the 1980s, run by the Islington Over 60s set, backed by wild loose cannons like Diane Abbott and, worse still, Ken Livingstone, can put together a coalition sufficiently broad to see Labour get to power. I just don’t see it and I don’t want to see it. Those of us of the left but not of the hard left would have great trouble supporting a manifesto calling on the UK to disarm unilaterally. And if those of us on the left have a problem, what say those in the centre ground?
If Labour is not about winning, then what is it for? “A political movement” is shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s suggestion which implies that maybe it isn’t. For all the merits a “political movement” might have, governing the country is not necessarily one of them. So, do we want to win, or serve in “principled” opposition, as an even more right wing Tory government destroys the NHS, increases inequality and generally dismantles everything that makes this country great? If it is the latter, then I am afraid we cannot simply stand by and show the loyalty the likes of Corbyn demand, but never gave when they were on the backbenches.
“Put up or shut up” shout the Corbynistas, as if they have the answers, which they clearly haven’t, not yet anyway.
Sadiq Khan is right. Labour must reach out to voters who voted Tory if it has any serious hopes of winning. There is nothing glorious about so-called principled electoral failure. If Labour does not reach out it really is “doomed to fail”.
I put it down to two groups of people: those who quite fancy a Labour government, but to whom it doesn’t really matter whether they win or not, and those who need one. I am standing four-square behind those who need a Labour government, who will be the most disadvantaged in society, as well as those who believe the need for greater fairness, equality and opportunity is an absolute unqualified priority.
New Labour’s main failing was that it was not brave enough to deeply entrench genuine equality into society. With such massive majorities it was, I felt, too timid. But life was still much better under New Labour than it is under the old Tories and let’s not forget that New Labour won three general elections.
If losing really is an option for some people in the Labour Party, I’d merely ask what they are doing in politics in the first place.
Some say that there are those of us who actually want Corbyn to fail, which would obviously mean Labour failing. What utter tosh. That is a very different issue than observing and pointing out that Labour’s unexpected leader is not up to the job and needs to raise his game pretty damn quick, not by addressing Stop The War rallies but by addressing the vast majority of the electorate who did not vote Labour. Perhaps Corbyn has hidden – well hidden – qualities that have lay dormant throughout his long backbench career and he will, eventually, rise to the occasion as Labour leader. But he needs to lead the “broad church” of a Labour Party his old mentor Tony Benn always referred to, not a hard left sect.
Every time Corbyn speaks, he seeks to remind us of his “huge mandate” from Labour members and it’s unarguable that he was elected by an overwhelming majority. If he is to put that mandate to real use, he needs to turn Labour into a winning electoral machine. He’d do well to take Sadiq Khan’s advice, that’s for sure.