The British people have elected just three Labour Prime Ministers in the 70 years since the Second World War—Attlee, Wilson and Blair. In the same period, Labour has entered four elections with a leader who diminished their chances of winning. It took three election losses from 1979 to 1987 before Labour found the motivation to become electable once more. What does all of this mean for a party again uncompetitive in the democratic marketplace? After the post-mortems what must Labour do to offer a realistic end to Conservative government?
Seek out an electable leader
The party must not elect a leader and leave her or him there for five years before the voters confirm what was known all along. It would be madness if a company could only ditch its CEO if it went bust. Who of Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Mary Creagh will appeal once under the 24-hour media spotlight? Many who supported him thought Gordon Brown’s non-celebrity status and dour competence were the right contrast to Tony Blair. But that judgement proved wrong. Ed Miliband was elected, in part, to shake off the old guard of New Labour. But he also failed the spotlight test.
Govern the backbenchers better
The Conservatives know this first rule of leadership. Their party has rules that make it straightforward to challenge and replace the leader, and have done so whenever electoral necessity dictates. Backbench opinion has the 1922 Committee—a forum to discuss issues free from the leader and cabinet and their patronage power. By contrast, although the method of leader election has improved, Labour’s rules so favour the incumbent that unelectable leaders are often left to seek election. Labour in Parliament has to institute effective backbench governance (the 2022 Committee?) and adopt the Conservatives rules for challenging the leader.
Reconsider its purpose
Labour’s problem lies in having won its historic mission to eliminate mass disadvantage, mass injustice and mass poverty. These were the conditions that first gave birth to the party, formed as a means for the trade union movement to establish political representation at Westminster. The movement’s founders would marvel at the lot of today’s masses. To base 21st-century policy on their thinking of 100 years ago would not cross their minds. But trapped by its history, Labour’s heart dwells easily in nostalgia.
Tony Blair and co knew this, of course. They symbolically ditched Clause IV of the party’s constitution which called for the nationalisation of the “means of production, distribution and exchange,” rebranded with the red rose and a change of party name (“New Labour”), developed a pragmatic programme, courted Murdoch and business, constructed a powerful electoral machine and, buoyed by the economic incompetence of the Conservative government, won a notable victory. Blair was effective for his first term, but became bogged down in misplaced reform, lost his way, went to war in Iraq, and stayed too long. Successors scratched around for something different and eventually retreated to the old certainties that powered the party a century ago.
Rebranding and renewal
What does Labour do now? It might do best to close, opening up the political space for fresh thinking. It certainly has to free itself from trade union influence—a “one nation” party cannot also be a party of sectional interest. David Cameron is—presumably unintentionally—helping in this direction through the new law announced in the Queen’s Speech to reform the way union members pay a “political levy” to Labour. Under the Conservative plans, union members will have to opt-in to paying an annual amount to Labour, rather than opting out as at present. Estimates vary, but this will cut funding by many significant millions and lessen dependence.
The alternative to closure is renewal and rebranding. In this, Labour’s biggest issue is to decide what it is no longer for. After that, deciding what it is for is straightforward: it is not as if we are short of problems for governments to solve. Who does not want high education standards, a world class health system, fair taxes, balanced immigration and the right conditions for regulated business to flourish? Politics today is mostly about turning these common purposes into practice: “getting them done.” Delivery politics. Good for all, including the disadvantaged.
In a largely post-ideological world, 15-20 per cent of the electorate only are tribal Tories. The other 80 per cent are all persuadable. There is no core vote to hanker after. The party needs policy-by-policy pragmatism, as the most successful of the new parties—the SNP—has practised in government in Scotland.
Take one of Labour’s beloved sacred cows, the NHS. This has been under continual reform for the past 35 years by both Conservatives and Labour, trying various concoctions of restructuring, tightening and loosening funding, and internal and external marketisation. Yet, it is still not “reformed.” The problem is the model. Take a look, for example, at the French, Italian, and Danish models—all socially just—and engage extensively with the public on the problem and the solution—as the Canadians did to deliberate on their health model.
On tax, as Phillip Collins proposes in this month’s Prospect, the party must develop a coherent strategy. What is the point of taxation, what economic and other behavious is it intended to motivate, how is avoidance best avoided, and what does a fair taxation system look like? Electoral reform is crucial. Would it be a political masterstroke to adopt proper proportional representation for the next manifesto?
Labour cannot wait. It has lost two elections in a row, and it is being suggested that third is inevitable. This is now an opportunity for the party to celebrate its past successes, break free of its history, and to lead an electoral revival.