United Kingdom

Voters want to hear a plan for the future, not nostalgia for the past, writes DAVID BLUNKETT 

Over half a century in public life I have discovered that things are never quite as good as you think they are – and never as bad as they seem at the time. But over the last few days I have come close to revising that judgment.

The result of the Hartlepool by-election and many, but not all, of the election results in England are quite simply devastating for the Labour Party.

By the weekend I felt as I imagine so many Conservatives must have felt back in 1997 when Tony Blair led New Labour to a landslide victory.

It took the Tories eight years to bring about a substantial change in their party’s approach to the electorate and make significant inroads into Labour’s majority.

It has now taken Labour 11 years to reflect on the first of four defeats since the much maligned Blair-Brown era.

The victory for Andy Burnham in the Greater Manchester Mayoral election demonstrate that the politics of community help to create a feeling of common purpose and a sense of identity

A reshuffle of Keir Starmer’s Opposition front bench is inevitable but is not sufficient. The message – not just the messengers – is the problem here. Yes, Keir will surely reflect on how to project a more relaxed and empathetic demeanour.

However, the real issue does not involve personalities but culture and direction.

Labour’s disastrous election result of December 2019 under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn not only left the party with just over 200 seats but still in denial about the best way to achieve electoral success.

Some – far too many – on the left of the Labour party seemed to think the appropriate response to a rise in the number of men and women voting Conservative was to offer them a programme even more extreme than before. Others took comfort in the slightly less disastrous 2017 election in which Theresa May achieved the not inconsiderable feat of giving the then Labour leadership some credibility.

But the truth is that Labour had won four more seats than it had in 2010 by mopping up Lib Dem and Green votes rather than by winning over Tory voters in key areas crucial to a Labour victory.

So what should Labour learn from the present malaise and what approach might just offer a springboard to recovery in the years ahead?

It’s a recovery that is vital if we are to avoid the rise of a Conservative hegemony that squeezes out the legitimate voice of opposition and undermines the health of our democracy.

One of the first truths to be recognised is that – historically – there was not one homogeneous working class vote on which Labour had been able to rely over the last 100 years. If there had been, Labour would not have been out of power for so much of the 20th century.

In reality, the traditional industries in the North – from ship-building and engineering to steel and mining – created a shared culture and experience that reinforced working-class solidarity in a way that no longer exists. 

The electorate’s ability to set aside the many failings of our present Prime Minister demonstrated their votes will go to those who promise hope and betterment for tomorrow

Addressing working people as though we are still back in the 1970s is not only patronising, but misses the crucial point – that voters in key seats outside the cities have the same shared experiences as those in the towns of southern England and the Midlands which have so often elected a Conservative government in the past.

This is understood by the Tories.

People are not victims waiting for largesse to be dispensed by us from above, but aspirers looking for our support in developing and using their own talents.

To win, you have to convince the voter that you have a programme for the future, not a nostalgia for the past and a political outlook that is out of date. 

This was understood by Tony Blair, whose understanding of the preoccupations of ‘Mondeo Man’ helped us win three consecutive election victories, but not, sadly, by the Labour Party as a whole.

Hence the need to build a coalition of the aspirant and not to simply target the dispossessed and disadvantaged.

It is necessary to grasp the alienation that some voters feel from a party that failed to understand that people have moved on.

Whatever Labour offers as an alternative to Boris Johnson’s peculiar brand of politics has to be bottom up and not top down.

The substantial victory for Andy Burnham in the Greater Manchester Mayoral election and the little-noticed triumph of Dan Norris in the battle to be the Metro Mayor of the West of England demonstrate that the politics of community, whereby people’s creativity, aspirations and hope are channelled into concrete achievements, help to create a feeling of common purpose and a sense of identity.

I say ‘sense of identity’ because this is the very opposite of metropolitan identity politics.

Getting the right people in the right shadow ministerial jobs is a prerequisite and now might be the time to bring back big beasts such as Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper

Contrary to what some on the liberal left seem to believe, the Tories didn’t start what became known as ‘the culture wars’, which led to values and beliefs we held in common being fractured by an obsession with playing up our differences in terms of gender, sexual orientation or race.

The toppling of statues and the questioning of museum exhibits played directly into the hands of the Conservatives, who were able to appeal to the many who have pride in the best of our past while understanding perfectly well the failings of those who came before us.

This movement may not be anything to do with the Labour party directly but we are in danger of being tarred with the same metropolitan brush.

The electorate’s ability last Thursday to set aside the many failings of our present Prime Minister and his Cabinet demonstrated a bewildering but clear truth that what matters to many are the bread-and-butter issues of the moment and their votes will go to those who promise hope and betterment for tomorrow.

Keir Starmer has an unenviable task. His first year was dominated by the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, which saw Government ministers appearing on our broadcast media almost daily, with the Leader of the Opposition offered no right of reply and in no position to make any big announcements.

Contrast this with the platforms available to Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, leader of Labour in Wales, and the difference is self-evident.

The SNP returned to power for a fourth term and in Wales Labour came within one seat of a majority in the Senedd.

What they had in common with Boris Johnson was visibility and air time.

So, it is not simply listening to people, but understanding and appreciating what they say, which is a first essential step to recovery. Getting the right people in the right shadow ministerial jobs is a prerequisite.

Now might be the time to bring back big beasts such as Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, for example. And shadow ministers must be freed up to write, to speak and to explore the challenges of tomorrow. Some, such as social care, remain unresolved after years of agonising over possible solutions.

Others, like the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics on the nature of work and the distribution of productivity, may seem distant and vague but will have profound implications for the world of work. As, of course, will decarbonisation in the effort to tackle climate change.

Just as the free market couldn’t provide answers to a global pandemic, it will take a government working with the people to find fair and acceptable answers to the very different world we will confront in the years to come.

Lord Blunkett was Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004.

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