How can Labour Win Again?
First Published, 13/01/2020, by James Prentice.
Labour suffered its fourth election defeat in a row and yet another round of articles have flown across the web pointing out the reasons why Labour lost. The reasons are much the same to why Labour lost the last three elections. The overarching theme is one of poor communication between the party and voters. This particularly culminates with perceived poor leadership combining with a lack of perceived credibility over handling the county’s finances. Therefore, if Labour is to overcome the large barrier in front of them and win elections again they must change some things to help improve its perceived credibility amongst voters. To change their credibility they must understand how the electorate has changed, moderate their message, change their leadership style and understand where Labour has gone wrong in the past, especially with the voters they lost.
Understanding how the electorate has changed:
Firstly, the Labour Party must understand that its traditional historical bases have partly evaporated over the last two decades. Competition parties have over voters has changed a lot since Labours landslide victories of 1997 and 2001. Some of Labour’s base has clearly gone since these past good times for Labour. Labour is now an irrelevance in Scotland in terms of seats as they are down to just one seat, with only around 5 seats seemingly like a realistic possibility of being winnable anytime soon. Moreover, Labour in the North East, North West and some parts of the Midlands are now appearing to be less willing to return Labour MPs also. However, whilst support has clearly gone away from Labour other support has flowed Labour’s way. Since 1997 one generation of electors has naturally replaced another generation as the electorate changes with time.
This means that Labour’s base has been replaced with new voters who will be voting for many elections to come, suggesting future success could be possible in a generation for Labour. These younger voters have replaced its former middle aged, now older, working class base. These voters are more likely to have gone through the university education system and are less likely to identify according to the old working class identities. These younger voters are more likely to resonate with newer forms of identification, such as a commitment to broader notions of identity, e.g. European cosmopolitanism. The Labour Party has moved away from its traditional working class base and towards a more liberal identity.
This brings us to the central problem Labour faces, their new base is not necessarily compatible with its old working class support base. Its new base embraces a much more Socially Liberal view of politics. The younger generation on average are much less likely to have concerns over immigration, strong attachments to local identities and are less likely to have supported Brexit. In fact a lot of these voters would not mind if Brexit was cancelled altogether. Meanwhile, Labours older base, who partly abandoned them in the last election, appears to be much dissimilar to this new base Labour as they tend to have a more Socially Conservative outlook. These voters tend to be more cautious towards immigration increases, stronger attachments to local and national identities with a much higher chance of supporting Brexit.
Moreover, these voters would have been the group perhaps most concerned with ideas of stopping Brexit. The division goes further than this as there are economic divides to. Whilst these groups may agree on policies of redistribution, such as better wages, taxation policies, regeneration strategies, tackling inequality and supporting those less well off with a better welfare system they sharply disagree when it comes to economic approaches and how to manage the nation’s finances. Younger people appear to be much more willing to support radical economic changes, especially in supporting higher spending levels with greater governmental control over services daily economic activities of the UK. Labours older working class base on the other hand is much less willing to accept such as approach. It is important to recall that this generation still can recall the winter of discontent and Labour’s inability to appear credible in the early 1980s. This period in the UK’s history saw radical socialist economic policies fail and deliver great economic difficulties to the country. It also paved the way for Thatcherism which decimated some of these communities’ industries which some have never recovered from. This type of politics in these areas of Britain are still associated with these problems and dark times, therefore they have little traction than compared to constituencies that have younger populations who instead associate these economic policies with positive changes for their lives. These groups consequently instinctively have much different reactions to Labour’s radical socialist brand of economics.
This highlights the central problem Labour has in winning a general election. With the electorate changing in the way they have how can these two bases, who in some ways are not directly compatible with one another, be united to form a coalition large enough to allow Labour to be competitive when it comes to forming governments? Uniting the new Socially Liberal base with its older Socially Conservative base is the essential problem that Social Democratic parties across Europe have faced. The bad news for Labour is that most Left Wing European parties have not managed to do this, with some even having faded from political relevance in their respective countries. The good news for Labour is that due to our electoral system the chances of Labour being replaced as the 3rd major party in England and Wales appears to at the moment to be quite small and there is time to form a new alliance, four years in fact. This alliance should be one of moderate progressive economics with a Socially Communitarian outlook. This is also known as the Blue Labour tradition and this type of politics goes back to the heart of the founding of Labour in the early 20th century. The leader who can best forge this new alliance is the one Labour should chose in this leadership contest.
Moderating its economic message:
What does moderate progressive economics with a Socially Communitarian outlook actually mean in terms of a philosophical outlook for Labour? The first thing it means is that economic policies must be toned down and communicated in ways that are much more intuitive to the average voter. Labour made two massive mistakes in their manifesto. They promised far too much money and talked about immense projects in a very broad and vague way that did not clearly relate to people’s lives.
Instead Labour should reform its economic outlook that first of all pledges less money to fewer deliverable projects. These projects should be smaller scale ones that are much easier to communicate. For example, Labour pledged £55 billion to infrastructure investment to very large projects that appeared undeliverable, and policies that do not appeal realistic are rarely supported by a majority of the electorate. This perceived inability to deliver also had knock on effects in giving the public the impression Labour would not handle the books that well, again putting people off voting Labour. Instead Labour could have pledged specific projects and targeted its message locally, which is easily done with their large activist base and social media advertising. One thing Labour could have done was commit to a series of smaller scale projects specific to constituencies they were defending and competing for. Targeting specific small scale deliverable projects would have showed commitment for redistribution of investment towards these communities and could have received much more support than the broad and vague statist taken in 2019.
More localism and less statist solutions? Moreover, Labour could have gone further on redistribution by redistributing power. Labour could have set up institutions and functions which allow different regions and localities more control over how investment is spent. There is no reason why decision makers in the North East and North West could not decide how to spend infrastructure spending just as wisely, if not more wisely, than people making infrastructure investment decisions in Whitehall. Labour committing itself to give local communities more power in deciding how to spend their money would show willingness to listen to these communities, willingness to invest in them and an ability to show how it could be trusted to manage the nation’s finances.
Labour could have also explained much more how it was going to reform the benefits system. The communities Labour lost have reliance on a good redistribution welfare system. Labour could have got more support by much more clearly communicating what they would replace universal credit with. Labour could have shown how they would both try to redistribute money in a way that would support communities struggling, but would also try to weed out those not willing to contribute to the local community, whom Socially Communitarian people loathe. Such a focus could have shown a willingness to redistribute money sensibly, whilst also showing these voters Labour was listening to them and was on their side. Labour’s broad and vague pledges on spending more money on welfare policies just did not resonate as it was not clear how this affected voter’s lives in constituencies Labour lost.
Finally, whilst there were some popular statist policies in the last manifesto there is no evidence that the level of state intervention Labour was offering is popular enough for it to be able to win an election. Therefore, Labour must ask itself a question, how can it bring the changes many in society feel is needed without drastically increased governmental power? This is the challenge many Social Democratic parties across Europe have faced and it is again UK Labour’s turn to try and answer this question. One answer to this question is to create new local institutions which have devolved Westminster powers meaningful enough to positively affect many services many voters care about, such as the NHS, Education and much more.
Empowering local communities to solve their own problems and provide better services for themselves and their neighbours, which can strengthening communities, is a very socialist principle and one Labour has often overlooked in favour of statist solutions. Perusing ideas like regional government with meaningful powers, like that of London has already, could be a way of improving services across the country in a way that directly listens to the people who Labour lost touch with. This will allow Labour to show communities across the country they are listening, whilst also providing genuinely radically solutions to problems that might have popular support amongst votes. Moreover, allowing more money to be spent at the local level will allow Labour to show they have a plan to more wisely and efficiently spend the nation’s finances as local government generally does deliver services more efficiently than other government departments. This might just help make inroads into the economic credibility debate it has struggled on in recent times.
Leadership more in tune with the country’s views:
For Labour to be able to achieve these changes it must first achieve a change in direction, meaning a change of the type of leader it elects. The barrier of electing a new Leader is that the membership’s view is way out of kilter with the public’s view of its party and how Britain should develop policy going forward into this new decade. The membership elected Corbyn twice and the majority of members simply did not listen, or really understand, the publics concerns with the direction Labour was going in. Labour members this time around will need to much more consider which leader might be able to understand voters’ concerns about immigration and Labour’s ability to handle the nations’ finances. It must also understand how it is perceived by the electorate and how its leadership in particular is perceived. Therefore, it must elect a different leader who can communicate Labour's understanding of Leave voters’ concerns around immigration and a need to sensibly and pragmatically redistribute the nation’s finances through investments in deprived communities.
Perhaps to fully change the party it must elect a leader who can stand up to the influences inside the party who may make Labour less electable. This means they must be very tough as there are some toxic forces within the party who Labour less electable, most obviously that of anti-Semitism. This might require a new leader to create new investigations, with different people leading them, into abuse. It might also meant they will have stand up to the NEC if required also, who ultimately were responsible for delivering Labour’s manifesto which repelled so many voters. This obviously will mean any future leader will have to be very tough to be able to withstand personal and political attacks from groups within the party who have incentives to see nothing changing.
Admitting where it got things wrong:
Labour must also communicate where Labour has gone wrong and where it failed to listen to voters. Labour must do this to get voters who abandoned them to listen to their messages again. Some voters have felt abandoned by Labour, and in some cases completely ignored, this creating and image Labour has been part of a political process that have left their communities behind. Labour has been in decline electorally within these communities for at least a decade now. This is because these communities feel they did not benefit from Labour’s economic policies last time when they were in government. Moreover, they felt Labour ignored their concerns with immigration along with feeling of a lack of an ability to shape their communities in a way that they wanted. Labour then appeared to continue to ignore these communities over Brexit when many felt Labour pledged in 2017 to listen to them. If Labour continued to reinforce feelings of ignoring these voter’s feeling then getting these voters to take Labour seriously again will be a difficult task. Essentially, Labour needs to not fall into the trap the Tories will set of painting Labour as a bunch of sneering metropolitan elites who can’t represent these communities. Signalling Labour is listening by showing these voters they understand why they might have turned away from Labour is something Labour can easily do which will help them on a road back to Government.
Labour could admit they failed to regulate the banks effectively which left the UK very much exposed to a huge financial crisis which severely hurt these communities, more than most. Moreover, it needs to admit it got it wrong last time when it increased spending quite substantially whilst not raising low taxation rates, creating a deficit many thought Labour managed poorly. Labour might also have to talk about an issue it has struggled to talk about, that of immigration. If Labour cannot admit it got it wrong when it failed to address the issue for years, despite these communities’ major concerns on the issue, whilst also showing it understood reasons behind these concerns then it may be hard to reach out to these voters. Finally, Labour could admit it got it wrong on Brexit. When the Brexit referendum result was announced Labour should have started coming up with plans how to make it work, especially in these communities interests. However, rather than do this and honour the result as they promised Labour helped create political deadlock and promised different voters alterative futures. They pledged to Remain voters they would offer another referendum, whilst also saying to Leave voters they would deliver Brexit. These communities understandably felt cheated and Labour could not be trusted to deliver on the issue. Labour must acknowledge it failed Leave voters on the Brexit issue, and some Remain voters to before it can regain these voters trust and expect voter’s to listen to their message. It should do this by clarifying its position going forward to speak to these disillusioned voters directly.
Who might such a leader be? With the nominations now closed the candidate members should chose is the one that is best placed to do all of the above: understanding electoral change, moderating the party, communicating a pragmatic progressive communitarian message and understanding the errors of the past. It is very early on in the leadership contest and the hustings might provide insights who is the best leader to do all this. This time around listening closely to all the candidates and allowing them the space outside of party tribes to explain how they will bring the above changes must be done if Labour is to select the best possible new leader. Perhaps ultimately the best leader to pick is the one best at communication of Labour values and ideas many voters agree with. To over overcome this might be t a tough task as this has been a choosing poor leaders with poor communication skills is a consistent error Labour has made for some time now.
James Prentice, PhD Researcher, University of Sussex.