Another election, another Labour post-mortem. Only this time it will be different. Or at least it really should be. The scale of last week’s electoral pummelling (Labour’s worst return of seats since 1935; 24 heartland seats going Tory for the first time in decades; Tories outpolling Labour by 49% to 23% among working class voters; the most unpopular Opposition Leader on record) should frighten all those who remain in the Labour family.
The good news is that whatever family disputes remain – and there are plenty – all its members agree this is time for a fundamental examination of why Labour lost, and why it lost on the scale and in the manner it did. Our challenge now is to do this examination properly.
This is not a time (borrowing a culinary favourite of the prime minister) to trot out an oven-baked analysis prepared earlier. We know the anatomy of the disaster, but there is work to do to understand it fully, let alone to decide how to respond. More importantly, the process of examining what went so spectacularly wrong isn’t only about finding answers. It is about a showing a party willingly engaging in an act of contrition, open to challenging truths, learning from the people we claim to serve. It won’t be quick, easy, pleasant or decisive. But it is as essential for Labour now as the act of putting up 650 candidates for election every time the country is asked to choose who governs.
So, in the spirit of helping our collective self-examination go well rather than badly, here are 10 thoughts about how Labour should now conduct a constructive political post-mortem.
1. The crisis of the Left is international, so learn from other countries too.
It may or may not be reassuring, but the electoral crisis of the Left is not an exclusively British phenomenon. Social democracy is in serious and protracted trouble across Western Europe. Just ask the German SPD, currently languishing on 11% in the polls. Or the alliance between 5 centre-left parties that between them only got 6% of France’s vote in June’s European Parliament elections. It follows that there is something rotten in the state of the European Left, not just in Labour. For all the UK-specific factors that will be marshalled in the next few months, a good starting point would be to look at what is causing the cross-national decline of the post-1945 Left. And perhaps even talk to our sister parties about what they think too.
2. No party wins by going back to its favourite former incarnation. Look ahead, not backwards.
At times in the last few years, the internal Labour debate has felt like a political fist-fight between two groups: one that wants to return to early 1980s Labour, the other that wants to return to mid-1990s Labour. But no party ever wins again by being a tribute act to itself. There is a danger that rethinking becomes a contest between favourite past versions of the Labour Party. If that happens, Labour will be speaking to itself, in a language that voters won’t understand, and with content that they won’t care about.
3. Understand how the country you want to govern has changed from when it last gave Labour a majority.
Labour’s formula for a century has been to try to build a cross-class coalition in an electorate divided along class lines. The legendary power of class in structuring British voting has far from disappeared, but it now sits alongside age, education & geography as the factors that shape our country’s elections. Last week, under-24s across class were three times more likely to vote Labour than Conservative; and over-65s across class were over than three times more likely to vote Conservative than Labour. The electorate is changing in ways that are uncomfortable and no longer admit of the same electoral strategies. Labour needs to understand the change properly before deciding on the strategy needed to win power again.
4. A movement inside a party is valuable if it helps to recruit new voters of different stripes. Movements should strive to be more like festivals, and less like cults.
Jeremy Corbyn’s most extraordinary internal revolution inside Labour was his recruitment of hundreds of thousands of new members alongside (and wrapped up with) the establishment of Momentum. Momentum’s flourishing is in many ways a fantastic achievement, and in a sensible world it should be a platform for campaigning, engagement and debate well into Labour’s future.
But for social movements inside parties to be helpful, rather than divisive, they need to help the party gain new audiences. Too often, sometimes unfairly but often not, fellow travellers on the centre-left of politics have seen Momentum as a sanctity for the pure, only interested in converts to their own brand of fundamentalism, and scowling towards others within the Labour fold. For the next incarnation of Momentum, its leaders should set themselves the task of looking more like a festival – open, welcoming, embracing of people from different parts of progressive politics, eager to discuss without judgement – and less like a cult that is happy describing fellow Labour supporters as melts, centrists or Tories.
5. Talk to people who hate us and left us, not just those who stayed with us.
Obvious, really: but for Labour to do a proper post-mortem, it needs to speak to people who may not want to talk to us at all. It cannot be an exercise restricted to talking to members, disappointed activists or ex-MPs. It must find those who have walked, and those who really can’t stand us. A full 360-degree understanding of how we are seen demands talking to Labour, occasional-Labour, ex-Labour & never-Labour alike.
6. Finding out again what all voters believe and want does not mean surrendering our values
Talking to those who have turned their back on your party is sometimes seen (especially on the Left) as turning your back on your own principles. As though you have given up the idea of believing things and gone into a sales job. This is a caricature: and if you believe it, it will give you a clue as to why the party you belong to lost so badly. Politics is the art of constructing coalitions anchored to core values. But you cannot do that unless you once again get to know the country that you no longer recognise.
7. Don’t use the post-mortem to continue the fight that caused the death.
If the debates after the defeat look exactly like the internal fights that gave rise to it, the public will be right to conclude this is a less a Party learning how to win again, and more a Historical Re-enactment Society. And who would vote for that?
8. Reconnecting is not about new, old or indeed any policies. Yet.
After the policy blitz of the election campaign, the beginning of 5 long years of opposition should be a time for a policy moratorium. Reconnecting at this stage is not a question of new policies. That misses the point and misunderstands how fundamental a break with voters has occurred. The road back from last week’s defeat has many stops – humility, understanding, listening, debate, electing a new leadership, telling a story about Labour’s mission and values – before new policy re-enters the picture.
9. For every criticism you have of past actions of other groups in the Labour Party, try to volunteer a criticism of yourself.
Wisdom & reconciliation inside factionalised parties come from acknowledging that the fault doesn’t just lie with those factions with whom you disagree. The more each bit of Labour is ready to say “our lot got it wrong too”, the easier it will be to join forces across the Party to start to climb out of the abyss.
10. Conduct the upcoming leadership debate with civility towards fellow members & candidates alike. Because the electorate will be watching to see how we treat those with whom we disagree.
Because the public doesn’t like nasty. Because our character will be set by this next period for some time to come. And because Labour must do better than the bilious internecine hostility that has plagued the last few years. British politics deserves better than the past decade. So let’s start with us, and start now.
Lord Wood is a Labour peer and former adviser to Gordon Brown.