Labour is now five weeks away from the election hammering it signed up to when Jeremy Corbyn was elected and re-elected leader. Sadly, the local elections are only a taste of things to come. Labour’s national vote share will be lower, the Tories’ higher and many of the PLP’s best talents will be ejected from Parliament. The only question now is whether the party’s response to its inevitable defeat kills off Labour as a party of government for good. There will be huge decisions to be made, and if the party gets them wrong – again – then oblivion awaits.
The first question is whether Labour wants to give up or fight for its historic commitment to forming a government that can change the lives of working people. We know where the present leadership stands. Its election strategy is about maximising the vote share, not winning seats. Whatever the result, Corbyn and his supporters will argue millions voted for socialism and the job is not finished. The PLP should not allow this argument to take root. The immediate priority the day after polling day must be to ensure a quick leadership contest. Optimists hope this will see the end of Corbyn and that no hard-left alternative to replace him will be on the ballot. That contest should return to the electoral college system. The three-quid member experiment has been a disaster and surely cannot be repeated. There is also much to be said for only allowing two candidates, rather than indulging fringe candidates. No more ‘lending votes’. Let’s look serious about picking a PM. We’re not a debating society.
The first speech by that new leader has to include an apology for the last two years. We need a Kinnock ’85 type reckoning with the self indulgence of armchair socialists who have taken the party further away from its traditional and potential voter base than at any time since the 1930s. The millions of people who need a Labour government have been let down by a party which has indulged an inept leadership. The party has also let down the country by failing to provide a credible and electable alternative to an uninspiring Tory government. We need to say sorry for that and to promise never again to allow the foibles of the party’s activists to overrule the interests of our supporters.
The next leader needs to stop obsessing about what members and activists want and start talking about what the public wants. Stop using terms like neoliberalism and austerity as the cornerstone of our political arguments – outside the political bubble they are almost meaningless terms. Start talking about patients, children and parents, not just nurses and teachers.
The second big step is cultural. Labour is hamstrung by an addiction to sentiment. We should be proud of our achievements, but avoid obsessing over a fantasy golden era where Labour values were the country’s values and everyone thought the Tories were evil scum. This manifests itself in a number of ways – using the NHS as a campaign crutch again and again, and focusing on historical Labour figures from the past who have little or no relevance to the modern world. Look forwards, not backwards.
In some quarters of the party there has grown a bizarre assumption that anyone who is not Labour must be a Tory – and that anyone who is a Tory should be pitied or despised. The consequences of this childish tribalism are catastrophic. Fake news cheerleaders on social media are followed and retweeted by thousands of activists, unwilling to take a step back and ask whether what they’re hearing in the echo chamber is actually true. Meanwhile, the party’s dire relationship with the media that most people actually engage with continues to worsen. Nonsense about ‘no deals with Murdoch’ should be for the tinfoil hat brigade, not the leadership of a serious party. Labour voters and potential Labour voters read the ‘Tory press’. Stop slagging them off, and make the best of it.
This echo chamber tribalism also breeds intolerance. So the anti-Semitic ravings of Ken Livingstone are defended and then validated by his continued membership. Meanwhile hundreds of members spread anti-Jewish tropes, infecting Labour with nastiness and intolerance. These people need to be expelled, along with Livingstone. No ifs or buts: out, forever.
A new Labour leader must also reset its relationship with the unions. The link should not be broken but neither must union leaders elected by tiny percentages be allowed to meddle and blackmail the party. Len McCluskey is a union leader, not the Labour leader and he needs to be reminded of that and told where to go if he doesn’t like it.
Similarly, there should be no more stitch ups on selections. The PLP must have more MPs from backgrounds other than political activism or trade union activism. We must look and sound more like normal people, not ‘activists’. As we seek to represent a broad range of the population so our MPs must share their backgrounds and experiences too.
Finally, the next leader will need to answer why Tony Blair is the only Labour leader in 51 years to have won an election with a workable majority. That doesn’t mean aping the policies of Tony Blair, but it should mean making one of his core political beliefs Labour’s guiding principle: that the Labour party should and can win power and change lives by speaking for the British people, not just exist for Labour activists to feel good about themselves.
Wise heads can use the coming disaster of 8 June as an opportunity to get Labour back on the track to electability. But it will mean speaking for the country, not for Labour members. Is there anyone brave enough to do it? If not, Labour is doomed, not just for a generation but quite possibly forever.
Jo Green is a former head of press and broadcasting at the Labour party and worked for the party during the 1997, 2005, 2010 and 2015 general elections and on Sadiq Khan’s mayoral campaign.