Stories win elections: Labour lost because they didn't have one. Battle lines are now being drawn for its soul (or rather, who will lead the hunt to rediscover the elusive chimera) and again it is the story that will matter. There are two narratives currently competing that aim to diagnose what ailment the Labour campaign suffered from. One runs along the lines that Labour turned to the left over the past 5 years and the British people soundly rejected it, the other that Labour simply wasn't left enough, instead hovering around a muddled middle-ground with a confused and constrained message.
The former seems to be the most likely victor, with the currently declared candidates pretty much unanimously hinting at such a story, albeit with differing levels of enthusiasm. The majority of the potential candidates seem keen to emphasise vague notions such as a 'friendly' attitude towards business and a nurturing of 'aspiration'. Liz Kendall has at times suggested that this means supporting an arbitrary Tory welfare cap and hostility to the 50% top tax rate, whereas Yvette Cooper has flirted with reductions in corporation tax.
The task facing Labour is enormous. They need a swing of 8.75% to win in 2020, and this isn't even counting the potential boundary changes the current government are considering. Of course it is impossible to tell what the lay of the political land will be by then, but what is clear is that whatever candidate's story the party embraces needs to be good enough for the electorate to embrace too. It needs to be enough to challenge the Tory narrative of a recklessly spending Blair and Brown that has led to a global recession and inevitable austerity. They failed this election because they didn't offer the electorate a different story, and they're set to fail again unless they come up with a compelling alternative.
Many Labour activists are now pointing out that Blair was their most electorally successful leader, so they should return to some sort of revamped Blairism. This ignores the fact that the party actually lost a lot of votes during the Blair years, whilst Miliband's tepid deviations actually gained them 600,000, meaning their catastrophic seat loss has much more to with our bizarre electoral system than it does with Miliband's father being a Marxist scholar. Even taking into account the 'shy Tory' factor, Labour's lead in the polls only really dipped in 2012, when they took on a more austerity-leaning stance (and the worst of the Tory cuts were over). This is when their lack of a proper narrative really became obvious: if people want austerity they'll vote for the party that's good at it. Allowing themselves to be pulled this way and that by the menagerie of parties now in Westminster only served to emphasise their lack of sure footing.
So what would be so toxic about turning left? The difference in actual votes between the two parties was less than 2 million, whereas the anti-austerity votes up for grabs totalled 2.8 million (combined votes for SNP, Greens, Plaid and TUSC), although alas, FPTP would rear its head again to thwart Miliband and co. The word socialism may not go down well with the public, but its policies certainly do. There is a strong desire from the British public to see rampant inequality and ridiculous corporate salaries tackled, there is a deeper distrust of big business than of trade unions (and a desire to see them regulated more), and there has long been support within all party memberships for rail and energy nationalisation. Labour's dogged refusal to embrace these sorts of policies is even beginning to wobble their historic and at one time unbreakable relationship with the trade unions, and with it a large source of their money and support.
But beyond all of this there is one thing that is sadly lacking in Labour's leadership election: what is genuinely best for the country? Little thought seems to be being given to what Britain actually needs, with the rhetoric focusing instead on what will get Labour a majority next time around. It is true that you can't do an awful lot as a party if you're not in power, but you can't do an awful lot in power if you don't have a good plan either.
Austerity has stifled our economic recovery, obsession with growth instead of redistribution has led to climate change and poverty, and inequality has led to a deeply divided society, with an economy some 20% smaller than it otherwise could have been. All of this has led to a wealth of issues within mental health, education, crime and social cohesion. People and planet are crying out for something different, and Labour do us all a disservice by going along with the Tories in proclaiming we can't have it. They must have the political courage to tell a difficult message to the voters, because it is a message that needs to be heard.
This is really what lies at the heart of Labour's woes. Political parties are meant to inspire a nation, not pour their efforts into scraping by with a handful of marginal victories. Somewhere along the line winning elections became their primary concern, instead of what is best for Britain, and they are now deservedly paying the price. They have become consumed with the race, and have neglected thinking about the finish line for far too long. Careerists and power-seekers have corrupted a party that once had real passion and direction, turning it into a hollow shell bobbing along in a reactionary sea of confusion and disillusionment.
Fortunately for Labour there is a solution to both problems: an audaciously left wing agenda (not the half-hearted, confused one we saw from Ed) really does have electoral competence if done well, and also happens to have the lovely side effect of helping the country too. The story they must now tell is one in which state spending, done properly, is both a social and economic necessity, where the real cause of our problems is the consolidation of power and wealth in the hands of the few, and in which rampant inequality can no longer be allowed to go unchallenged.
Owen Jones often talks of the 'Overton Window'- what is deemed politically possible within a political system at a given time. Labour must bear some of the responsibility for the pain the Tories will inflict upon us, because they have paved the way to making it possible. The more Labour lurch to the Right, or even doggedly hover in the centre ground, the more acceptable they make austerity, privatisation and deregulation (and all the horror that comes along with it): the easier they make it for the Overton Window to be shunted rightwards.
Not just for their own sake, but for the country's too, Labour must begin to force the window leftward for the first time in decades. The conflict between the few and the many is about to spill over, and Labour must decide which side they're on, before it's too late.