There could be a book written on the flaws and weaknesses that have been debilitating for the Labour Party. And that might only cover what existed in the unhappy stint of Jeremy Corbyn. We forget inconveniently that Jeremy Corbyn’s arrival into the political frontline only arose from the failures of the party’s opposite wing and those in between.
The Labour Party right now feels like it’s in terminal decline. A future of relevance is possible but understanding that there is a corrosive weakness over themes and basic concepts is vital to our recovery. From Miliband to Corbyn, the party have not had policies over bread and butter issues that have been hugely unpopular. So what has gone wrong for the party, and how do they fix this?
Labour’s idea of fairness isn’t the same as the rest of country’s
The Labour Party naturally aligns itself as the party of fairness and social justice. We are the party that tilts the odds back in the favour of the most disadvantaged. And there is something to be said in Labour always maintaining that principle. There are ways to explore this theme of Labour-tinged fairness through popular policies that appeal to the public and don’t feel economically implausible.
Raising the minimum wage not only helps lift those earning their poverty but injects some more growth in the economy through increased consumer spending. Small businesses have their taxes slashed to help facilitate paying their workers fair wages.
One of Liz Kendall’s good ideas was to establish worker representation on company boards and that would give workers better control over their own workplace futures. Drastically increasing taxes, especially now with Brexit, is very difficult but raising the top-rate tax back to 50%, slightly raising the already-low corporation tax and clamping down on tax loopholes would appeal to the public in terms of it being fair. But these are admittedly very basic Labour positions and they haven’t been election-winners.
Labour needs to recognise the broad definition of fairness and one that isn’t driven simply by visions of social prosperity, but also fairness for the individual. The Tories have repeatedly built the mantra of the hard-working individual, and through it justified tax cuts for the poor (which Labour should support) and benefit squeezes (which Labour are finding harder to rebut).
In this time of squeezed living standards, altruism simply is running low. Combined with years of sweeping newspaper generalisations regarding benefit-claimers, and it’s unsurprising that much of the country wants tougher rules on it. Labour can repeatedly try to counteract this with statistics but, for people, fairness isn’t simply about addressing the balance between rich and poor, but about people being allowed to keep what they feel they have endeavoured hard for.
This argument often weakens Labour’s arguments for redistribution and taxation because it’s often framed in the context of welfare. For Labour, a way around this is to recognise where public mood is at. The country does not support higher taxes and idea of wealth redistribution if it’s recycled into the pockets of benefit claimers, as they feel that has supplanted working incomes. But they will gladly pay more in taxes for stronger public services and a stronger NHS.
Seeing schools and hospitals given more funds has become extremely important of late for the public. Labour need to begin framing fairness and concepts associated with it like progressive taxation around helping stronger public services rather than the welfare system.
Get tough on security
Progressives wherever they are have always been accused of being soft on defence and security. As globalists and liberals, we tend to lean in the side of respecting human rights, civil liberties and basic dignities for all. And societies that are well integrated simply function better than others.
Within France and Britain, the integration of Muslims is poor, a wall built between Muslims and wider society due to mutual distrust and alienation. And in the age of terrorism, it’s tempting for society to close the curtains, build new barriers and withdraw. Protection from terrorism feels harder to achieve with open borders and blind faith in the core humanity that links people beyond cultural barriers.
That is what Le Pen will savagely attack Macron with in the second round of the presidential elections. It’s what Labour Party suffer from as well, the risk of being seen as soft on threats to the country. This goes beyond Jeremy Corbyn, although he has well and truly hammered the nail on this perception – the Party risks being seen as too soft.
An explanation has often been the failure to point out that stronger relations and stronger emphasis on civil liberties and peace is more successful for social cohesion than hard, draconian policies which simply create an atmosphere of suspicion. The policies of the right do not work but that almost doesn’t matter. It’s being seen doing something.
The instinct of the progressive in the face of an imminent threat is to be cool, calm and rational whereas sometimes the public want an assertive response from our leaders. The only way Labour can therefore demonstrate a stronger appreciation of security, without necessarily losing sight of importance of civil liberties, is by reversing the Tory cuts to the military and police budgets.
By promising better coordination with other states whilst at the same time ensuring that Britain’s soldiers are not simply well trained but supported by enough resources, be it manpower or technology.
A strong leader
A strong, competent and stable party is all the public wants. And that tends to come from their image of the leader. Theresa May is fairly unimpressive but is utterly in control of her party despite the hints at internal friction. Jeremy Corbyn appears like a man battling a storm, constantly in chaos and it’s no wonder Labour appear like that as well.
If the leader is reactive, uncertain and too passive then the party will assimilate that approach. New Labour appeared refreshing, young and different because Tony Blair was. Under Miliband we reflected the leader: sincere but utterly confused. Should we even bother with describing what we’re like under Corbyn?
The idea within the Labour Party at the moment though has been to wrongly look at the rise of populist leaders across Europe and USA and assume it will work here. And yet, although Ukip shaped Brexit and dented the mainstream parties’ share of the votes in the 2015 General Election, they got less than half of what an abject Labour did. Corbyn’s Labour held onto Stoke in the recent by-election, a place regarded as Brexit capital.
Populist politics does exist here but it’s not what the mainstream society wants. They sniff with interest mildly at it but will always take the leader who is so typically British in being calm yet doggedly resilient. The mistake of the Labour leadership with that much-discussed reboot was to think that Trump-driven politics of anger will necessarily attract the voters they need. It won’t significantly be an election-winner. It might impress some people and shore up a few seats here and there, but ultimately unless it offers huge substance then it fails.
Labour at the moment cannot address its other issues if it consistently keeps choosing an unpopular leader. We start from a losing position every time we do that.