On Thursday, we saw the election of a majority Conservative government composed of ministers from a disastrous coalition that wrecked lives, broke promises, divided communities and suppressed economic recovery. Losing in these circumstances makes wholesale renewal of Labour’s policy, structures and approach a necessity.
Ed Miliband was a deplorable leader, resembling a second choice for our members and parliamentarians at best. He failed to answer to the challenge of Scottish nationalism when it first reared its head in the form of an SNP majority in 2011, and spent years delivering a message that failed to resonate with voters outside of Labour strongholds and metropolitan areas. Past policy was replaced with a desperate ‘shopping cart’ approach, combining public fears into an ideologically bankrupt manifesto that only lived up to public concerns that the party lacked direction. It ignored Labour’s proud record on immigration, supported conditions for a EU referendum, championed economic prudency at the same time as rent controls, and indiscriminately criticised large and small businesses. Any conviction to vote Labour was crushed with a patronising perspective that failed to inspire, ultimately amounting to: ‘get the Tories out’.
Prior to the election, Labour-leaning commentators were speaking of a ‘fightback’ against forces that dared place a critical eye on the Party: business, the media, nationalism, Lynton Crosby, and even the last person to win it an election, Tony Blair. Out of a desire to preserve a failing approach there was no time for self-reflection, and anyone who criticised the Party – internally or externally – was deemed an enemy to the cause of electing a Labour government. What followed an atmosphere of collective denial was a disastrous loss, with the public electing any available alternative. In Scotland, the public resoundingly elected the Scottish National Party, rejecting a simple message of protest and embracing something far more dangerous. In England, the Conservatives conveyed a message of consistency and professionalism, contrasted against risk: a campaign that could only have been fought in the face of Labour’s inconsistency and poor leadership. This culminated in the loss of three leading Scottish politicians and the Shadow Chancellor.
What next for Labour? We must not – as a party of diversity - replace our last leader with another stale pale straight white male PPE graduate. We must not seek security in the claims that Old Labour or New Labour is the future of progressivism: our performance was worse than that of Kinnock, and marginally better than that of 2010. We must not avoid criticism and instead embrace it, demanding more from our leadership and holding them to account for failure. We must reinvent Labour and take progressives from across the left with us, relying on new answers and a new exciting vision, not old combinations of centre-left and left politics to win. Denial of these realities would be beyond irresponsible, for it will lead to the election of another woefully inadequate leader, culminating in the reelection of a right wing government in 2020 that would do more damage than discourse inside The Labour Party ever could.
This is not a criticism of our party’s members, activists and employees. The country deserved so much better than a government resembling an Eton clique, and it’s a pity our own leadership suppressed party debate and failed to deliver an answer to it. Let’s make sure next time we don’t just give people a reason to vote against the Tories, but instead provide a new prospectus for people to vote Labour en masse with the same conviction in 2020 that we saw in 1997, and the generations before us saw in 1945.
Image: Chatham House