The Labour Party claims to be learning lessons from its crushing defeat in December’s general election. But are they the right ones?
While some have been moving through the stages of grief more slowly than others, the party has generally woken up to the reality that something’s gotta give. But it’s not yet obvious that the right lessons have been learned in the upper echelons of Labour – not even by some of the MPs putting themselves forward to be the next leader.
Yes, the party faithful are shifting their focus back to northern and rural communities, whose decision to vote blue this time around turned decades’ worth of electoral voting patterns on their head. The first Labour hustings revealed some agreement that the election manifesto was flawed. MP for Wigan Lisa Nandy has gained notable traction by putting the spotlight on less affluent regions and their genuine plights (bus routes, diminishing jobs); even in an uphill battle for support from a party membership still characterised by Corbynista frenzy, her talking points are having some cut-through.
But when the contest kicked off, it wasn’t these not-so-glamorous but oh-so important areas of public policy that dominated the news agenda. For all the talk of reflection and change, Labour has already fallen into old patterns, retreating into their comfort zone by putting identity politics at the heart of the race.
What dominated the first round of the leadership race wasn’t a debate between the virtues of the centre-ground versus a far left approach, but rather why the male candidate appeared to be garnering more support than the women. Rather than weighing up and critiquing the particular economic policies put forward by hopeful leaders, the focus has instead been on the gender of the person pushing the policy.
And the gender baiting hasn’t been subtle. Candidates like Jess Phillips implied just today that the one male candidate, Keir Starmer should leave the race, simply on the grounds that a man should not be elected this time round (and even more worryingly, that a women can’t win if a man stands against them). Once through, there came pointed praise from candidate Emily Thornberry for the “four strong women” who made it through to the second round, as if the purpose of this race were not to heal a broken party, but to boost Labour’s credentials in the areas of of gender politics and identity.
Indeed, much of the Left has become consumed with what they might as well label the ‘gender race’ instead of the ‘leadership race’. The pitiful level of debate in recent weeks suggests they have paid very little attention to the concerns of communities which abandoned the party in December. The Labour Party has yet to clock that their desire for more investment doesn’t stop at bridges and rail lines – it includes intellectual investment on the part of politicians to burst their metropolitan, morally superior bubbles and consider a way of living outside of their own ideological constraints.
Depending on how the next round in the contest plays out, we should expect further emphasis on the gender card, as many in the party push for Labour to select its first female leader. But if party loyalists really think the most important area of difference between Starmer and Rebecca Long Bailey is their gender, they are nowhere near ready to come back to the nation with their vision for the future. Continued pandering to progressive signalling will leave them fatally stuck in their electoral past.