The result of the 2015 general election saw Labour retreat to the cities. We racked up our worst performance in terms of share of the vote. We lost seats, or failed to gain our targets, in towns, in suburbs, in rural areas, and in coastal towns, from Bolton to Southampton, from Gower to Morley & Outwood. We lost one million votes from ethnic minority voters. We lost every MP, bar one, in Scotland.
The result is a political party whose MPs, with a few exceptions, represent cities in England and Wales. There are two risks inherent in this situation. One is that Labour can be easily, perhaps lazily, caricatured as a party of the metropolitan elite, out of touch with the instincts, rhythms and heartbeats of huge swathes of the British population in suburbs, towns, villages and the coast. The second is that the caricature becomes accurate: without MPs representing different types of community, our language, policies and priorities reflect only the needs of cities.
In our complex society, no political party can hope to form a government without reaching beyond the cities. The distribution of seats, especially after boundary reviews, means that a primarily urban Labour party cannot win enough seats to form a majority government. So the question for those of us who want Labour to win is simple: how do we reach beyond our urban heartlands?
We need to ask some hard questions about the voters we’ve lost since 2010. We need to acknowledge that we took votes for granted, and articulated this in the language of ‘safe seats’ and ‘core votes’. Of the 3.8 million people who voted Ukip, many were previously Labour voters in non-urban areas, for example the seats along the north Kent coast which Labour won in 1997. It would be a huge mistake to discount these voters, descend into name-calling, or write them off. We need to talk to them, listen to what they are telling us, and engage on the doorsteps.
I don’t mean we should ape Ukip policies to win votes off Ukip. We can’t out-Ukip Ukip. But we must listen. When the BNP won council seats in the 1990s, we won them back for Labour when we listened and learned. When Respect won Parliamentary seats, including the one I represent in Bethnal Green and Bow, we won them back by genuine engagement. We need the humility to listen to people, and really hear what they are telling us.
Often, the conversation starts out about jobs, immigration or the EU. This has become louder and more urgent since the Brexit vote. But underpinning it is a deeper anxiety about change, risk and powerlessness. This is hardly surprising, given the huge waves of change sweeping across our economy, society and culture. A sense of powerlessness is what animated the ‘leave’ campaign. It is what boosts ‘populist’ parties of left and right. It feeds the growth of ‘fake news’ and post-truth conspiracies. This question of power – who has it, and how it is distributed – is what Labour must address.
The fact is that the Labour party, in terms of both policy and organisation, has failed to adequately adopt to the changing, devolved contours of the British state. This is paradoxical, given devolution remains one of Labour’s great achievements. Yet our party remains centralised, top-down and inflexible. The charge of being London-centric is what destroyed us in Scotland, and could be equally lethal in the north of England.
We need to develop a renewed empathy with Britain beyond the cities, and reflect it in what we do and what we offer. We need creative campaigning which engages people on the issues that they care about. We need to listen to people’s concerns about immigration, without giving an inch to xenophobia and racism. We should offer a platform of greater devolution of power, wealth and opportunity to every corner of the United Kingdom.
We need to appreciate that automation is changing every workplace, and technology is changing every aspect of our homes and communities. At its best, this is creating a new kind of economy and new opportunities, particularly in London. At its worst, it’s creating great anxiety about the future labour market the kinds of jobs which no longer exist. The world of 2020 will be as distinct and different from the world of 1997, as the world of 1997 was from the world of the early 1970s. That means, of course, that there can be no nostalgic rerun of the last time Labour were in government.
But it does mean that we can rediscover the knack of winning elections. It will rest on a combination of two things: popular, practical policies which deliver modern health and social care, safe streets, more homes, fair taxes and decent education; and an inclusive narrative underpinned by Labour values, and which resonates with aspirational voters who want a better life for themselves and their children.
Image: Mike Mantin