Let’s face it: Labour is not going to win the next general election. Whether that election is called in 2020 or before, an opposition this far behind in the opinion polls has a negligible chance of forming the next government – with or without the support of other parties. What’s more, Labour’s internal polling (more accurate) puts the Party on an average of 22-23%, even lower than the average of 27% most pollsters have Labour on for this parliament.
Will we win the general election after next? Unlikely. What about the one after that? Perhaps. But to understand why we as a Party have arrived at this dismal point in our history, we need to go back further than Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, or even Ed Miliband’s. Labour’s current predicament was decades in the fashioning. In truth, Labour has been on the back foot ever since the advent of monetarism in the 1970s. Since then, the Party has been reacting, rather than leading. To borrow a phrase from a recent article I penned, Labour has been ‘resisting’, rather than ‘transforming.’
This is not true in ubiquity. We must rapidly disabuse ourselves of the notion that New Labour was not a transformative government. We must disabuse ourselves, too, of the idea that New Labour’s support was based mainly on the middle classes. It was partly because Blair managed to switch working-class Thatcherites over to Labour that we romped home in 1997. Moreover, In terms of advances for women and the LGBTQ+ community, New Labour was a radical reforming government. Equally, as far as investment in public services like schools and the NHS was concerned, New Labour did phenomenal things to repair the damage done by Margaret Thatcher’s callous assault on the welfare state.
However, we were transforming the country on economic terms set by our opponents. That’s what happens when you luxuriate in complacent opposition for the best part of two decades before finding the backbone to do a deal with the British electorate. The Tories have been in power for seven years now. I expect that they are not yet halfway through this current spell of dominance. Therefore, those of us who are realistic enough about how politics works would be wise to plan out a return to power that is winds its way through more than one electoral cycle.
A simple way to do this is to contrast the supremacy Labour enjoyed in the years immediately after 1997, with where it is now. Consider the dominance we had then and what it was based upon. At that point in time, Labour drew electoral support from pretty much every income bracket in most parts of the country (outside of the South West of England and the Tory shires). During successive elections, that support was steadily eroded (not that surprising given what being in power normally does to a party). It has continued to erode since we lost power. Crucially, the supposed bedrock of our support – working-class voters – have given up on Labour in increasing numbers. Between 1997 and 2010, we lost 5 million working-class votes – and that number has grown since.
New Labour – like all great empires – came to an inglorious end in 2010. In part, this was because, like the Roman Empire, it became overextended. New Labour’s supremacy was so great in its early years that many – including some Tories – proclaimed it the new ‘natural party of government’. This complacency meant that, in many ways, we tried to become all things to all people. In so doing, we became detached from many of our core voters, while we chased after ever more votes from our opponents in swing seats.
My former employer, Tesco, found that when they became overambitious and started focussing their resources and ingenuity too heavily on foreign markets – like America and China – their traditional customer base in the UK started to look elsewhere. I know we are supposed to be doing away with ‘shopping list policies’ in Labour politics, but I would say Labour’s dereliction of duty – or at least the perception of dereliction – towards its traditional working-class supporters is why its overall support has hollowed out and is now caving in on itself. We saw this in Scotland in 2015, and we saw it again in Copeland last week. According to YouGov, Labour is now the third most popular party among working-class voters. What a ridiculous position we find ourselves in.
So, what is the path back to power? Here’s my argument:
Premise 1: Labour faces a likely further two general election defeats before it will be in serious contention for power again.
Premise 2: Labour’s support has hollowed out to such an extent that we are effectively at ‘ground zero’.
Premise 3: Labour’s support must be re-built again from the ground up, based on working-class support first and foremost.
Premise 4: Only by focussing exclusively on the working classes for the considerable future can we regain their trust.
Conclusion 1: Labour should spend the next 5-10 years re-cultivating this support before it even attempts to compete for the votes of middle class liberals again.
Conclusion 2: Only once Labour has regained the trust of the working classes can it attempt to reach out to a broader spectrum of voters.
Now, I will admit that this probably sounds both defeatist and provocative. Indeed, when a broadly similar idea was suggested to me recently my the Chair of GMB Young London, Ryan Maynes, I scoffed at it … at first. But indulge me for a few moments more before closing this article with disdain. Think about it – no, really think about it. Labour is in intensive care. It can be rescued from it, but it needs to walk before it can run. If we do not rebuild our core, we will simply implode and be replaced by another party. The situation really is the gravest we have faced in our history, and in that context, the only option is to begin again. Yes, a party needs two wings to fly – but it also needs a heart and a stomach before it can embark on flight.
I call this slow, careful rebuilding of Labour’s coalition of support, the ‘layer cake strategy.’ The base of the cake – the most important part (don’t you dare call it the soggy bottom) – should be our working-class support. Everything else about the cake depends on this base being solid. Only after the careful construction of that base can we add to it other layers and even the icing on the cake (seats in the Tory heartlands). For clarification, I don’t have a sweet tooth (appearances can be deceptive), so I will always have a basic level of healthy disdain for that icing.
So to return to another recent theme of mine (apologies), this is why I emphasised, in another recent piece, the need for Labour to rebuild itself first and foremost in working-class communities before we can even begin to reach beyond them into the leafy suburbs of rural England. This will take a huge deal of time and effort. But what else is politics supposed to entail? In the Labour Vision launch piece, I mentioned John Smith’s final words to Ed Balls about getting all the thinkers together again.
It would be worth keeping in mind something else John Smith said that night, in his last ever public appearance. Reminding his audience of the need to remain humble in politics and not to forget the people they came into politics to represent, the great man remarked: “The chance to serve – that is all we ask.” How ominous, how true.