Guest post by Jon Trickett, Shadow Minister of State for the Cabinet Office. He has been the Member of Parliament for Hemsworth since 1996.
Rebuilding our covenant with the British people will require some tough decisions and an up-front acceptance of the things we got wrong.
The Party stands at a cross roads. We reject the turning towards 1980’s style ultra-leftism. Equally we should refuse the call from a voluble minority of backseat drivers who would turn Labour to a pale blue echo of Toryism.
Our future lies in opposing the Tories not mimicking them.
Equally it means embracing the mainstream concerns of the majority.
Unity is Strength. So said the ancient trades union and labour movement banners. Our leader has laid out a path forward which we can all support. The electorate will reward a unified party which knows which direction it wishes to take the country.
This is particularly so given the splits in the coalition.
But identifying mainstream concerns and transforming our party will require discussion and debate. Conducted in a tolerant, open and democratic way, discussion will enhance our capacity to win. Progress, New Labour, Compass and Blue Labour have all made valuable contributions to the debate and other voices need to be heard too from beyond the Westminster village.
It is fascinating, for example, to see the emergence of Winning Labour (www.winninglabour.org) based on a group of activists in Yorkshire. Equally a group of Young Compass committee members have now become “Next Generation Labour”. Frank Dobson MP has initiated discussions amongst Labour MP’s which will analyse the growth of inequality and advocate a more equal society. And a group of MP’s, under the title Working Labour, is starting meet to look at how the Party can reconnect with working people.
The debate which these and other initiatives will engender within the Party will help us to renew ourselves but such debate must not be rancorous, factional or divisive.
There are several issues which will need to be addressed in this debate.
In recent decades mainstream progressives on both sides of the Atlantic lost our way. We lacked confidence in our capacity to win a popular majority for our values. First Clinton and then Blair pioneered ‘triangulation’ that we must shift to the right in order to win.
The electoral demographics of this politics involved a laser-like focus on the so-called middle income ‘swing voters’, assuming that the ‘core vote’ among manual workers would continue with their historical attachment to parties of the centre left.
And so ‘New’ Labour followed on from the New Democrats and the Third Way was born. Both President Clinton and Tony Blair won famous elections. Much was achieved. But in the end they lost touch especially amongst people on middle and lower incomes.
Yet it is not clear, even now, that Conservative, or “Blue” social values, are as hegemonic in our society as is being argued by some. It would be foolhardy to underestimate the strength of the right, but equally we should not base our electoral strategy on an overstatement of the Conservative strength.
Consider the following: the Conservative vote under Major and Thatcher never really fell below 13 million but since then has never fully recovered. Even in 2010, Cameron’s Tories only gained 10.7 million votes, over 2 million behind their historic vote. Indeed, astonishingly, their share of AB votes actually declined from 41% in 1997 to 39% in 2010.
Whilst David Cameron significantly outpolls his party, the Conservative brand remains toxic to many.
It is instructive too that the Tory parts of the Coalition have not felt confident to press ahead in the short term with many of its clearly ideological project: the transformation of the NHS into a privatised service, the sale of the forests and the suggestion that they would privatise whole sections of the civil service.
Lord Ashcroft, who is a serious minded Tory strategist, recently carried out a major opinion poll, sampling 10,000 voters. The results must have caused him some anguish. Anxious that an outright majority may be out of reach, he says. “For those who considered voting Tory in 2010 but thought better of it, the biggest barrier ... was the continuing impression that the party is for the rich, not people like them.” Among people considering voting Tory he noted that “most said they would prefer the present coalition to a Tory government with an overall majority – a potential obstacle to them voting Conservative if an outright Tory victory looks like a real prospect.”
We should not conclude from all this that right wing ideas can be ignored as Labour rebuilds. But nor should we be mesmerised into thinking that it is necessary merely to track rightwards in order to win.
Labour’s immediate task is the rebuilding of its own electoral base. There are still some strategists who insist that we should focus exclusively on the ‘swing‘voters. They are wrong.
When analysing Labour votes by social class over the New Labour years and comparing 1997 with 2010, we lost 4.1 million votes among manual workers but actually gained 120,000 professional classes. Early signs of some recovery of the labour vote under Ed Miliband’s leadership should not be taken as an indication that all is now well. Widespread hostility to the Coalition’s more right wing initiatives does not mean we have won the argument.
For great scepticism about Labour remains based on our time in office.
The Tories are flat-lining at under 40%. People don’t buy in to their politics. There is a clear non-Conservative majority in the country. But if this majority is divided then Cameron can win a majority in a first past the post electoral system. The Tories understand this. Why else would the Murdoch press argue for a vote in Scotland for the SNP? Their strategy is to ‘balkanise’ the non Tory majority.
Labour’s response must be to create a majoritarian politics, sensitive to local and regional as well as class, gender and other identities, but which speaks to the country as a whole. For the truth is that the Conservatives do not offer a vision of the future which speaks to our sense of optimism and hope. There is a sense in the country that as a nation we have lost our, and that so many communities are insecure and facing a future which is bleak.
Whilst retaining the support of more affluent voters (and indeed strengthening our support), Labour must first understand, and then reconstruct, its relation with the C2DE social groups where the rupture with New Labour was the greatest. We must also understand the reasons for the regional differences in that vote for in the South it does seem to be the case that there is a currently less strong propensity to vote Labour, whilst in Scotland and elsewhere there are different challenges.
This will require a process for Labour as profound that as the creation of New Labour.
In my view Labour will need to be more than a party which re-finances the public services, we need to develop a new Political Economy which rejects the values of the casino and instead rewards hard work and thrift and one which also addresses the question of production as well as distribution. Our economy is less productive because of a huge collapse in investment, and the sources of finance for investment have been based on short-termism whilst the economic sectors into which finance has been investing are too narrow to prepare us for the new global challenges.
Re-founded, Labour must draw together the various progressive strands in the wider society and which form a majority. We can be optimistic that we can win because there is a progressive majority in the country. To do so we must show that we are serious about liberty and a democratised state, the environment and about low wages, working time, inequality.
As Ed Miliband once said ‘Heart and head come together in a politics based on clear values’.
This article is derived from a speech Jon Trickett gave at the Leeds Civic Hall on 9 July 2011.