What does the Labour party do now?

Labour must take the right lessons from its electoral defeat if it is to win again, argues Conservative moderniser David Skelton.

‘Speak for England, Arthur.’

It is one of the most famous moments in Parliamentary history. Arthur Greenwood was deputising for Clement Attlee and rose to respond to Neville Chamberlain’s faltering speech following the invasion of Poland. Leo Amery, a Tory MP, famously called on Greenwood to ‘speak for England’, with the clear inference that Chamberlain had not.

For many voters in May 2010, Labour did not speak for England. It seemed alien to the values and concerns of many voters who had seen the party to power in its great transformative elections – in 1945 and 1997 – and had seen its heartlands destroyed in Scotland and teetering in the North of England.

Throughout election night, English seat after English seat that was on Labour’s ‘must-win’ list not only stayed with the Conservatives, but did so with a swing away from Labour. Voters in these seats made clear that Labour didn’t share their values, hopes and concerns. The future of politics will be decided by how Labour responds to this defeat and seeks to restore its bond with the British people. Conservatives, like me and the Renewal group, are aware of the opportunities offered to Tories by Labour’s sense of detachment from many voters.

If they cannot find the ability to again speak for England and embody the future then Labour will struggle to position themselves as a credible party of government. It’s a startling fact that only three Labour leaders – Attlee, Wilson and Blair – have won working majorities since the Party was formed, and they all did so by seeming in tune with the national mood and by setting out a vision for the future, rather than a critique of the past. Crucially, they also did so with a message that resonated with the great mass of people, rather than one that condemned the very rich and only seemed to have solutions for the very poor.

Hurt as it might, Labour should also consider how the Conservatives went from a party that was hammered thrice by Tony Blair to one that was able to gain a majority this year, while inducing in the opposition this period of crisis. And, as we’ve shown at Renewal with the Conservatives, winning again can only happen when political parties are able to ask the really difficult questions about why voters have stopped voting for or even listening to a party. Reconnecting with voters does not happen by simply repeating the same, rejected, message in a louder way.

Lessons of the past

In Attlee’s case, he benefited from the public’s experience of war socialism but was also able to distinguish a vision of a new Jerusalem emerging from the depression and the war. Wilson allied himself with the ‘white heat of technology’ and Blair spoke of a New Britain being forged by a New Labour party. These were all explicitly projects of national renewal, with a clear vision for the future, rather than being restricted to anti-Conservative protests and wooly ‘time for a change’ messaging.

In all of these cases, Labour had moved on from being a party of protest and had explicitly taken steps to shift their values nearer to those of the British people. Attlee and Bevin moved Labour explicitly away from Lansbury’s unilateralism and displayed a capacity for government during the wartime coalition. Indeed, Labour’s left should remember that the Attlee’s support of the wartime coalition, Britain’s nuclear deterrent and membership NATO is the opposite of their left-wing caricature. Wilson embraced the mixed economy and consumerism, talked about restrictive practices ‘on both sides of industry’ and actively spoke of his moderation. Blair, of course, cast off the millstones that had held Labour back, such as commitments to nationalisation and higher taxes, and moved the party closer to the public’s values on crime and welfare.

This is not to suggest, as some do, that past Labour successes can simply be repeated using some kind of ‘magic formula’. Blairism was unique to its time and to a unique set of circumstances. Suggesting a return to ‘Blairism’ now would have been as absurd as advocating a return to Wilsonism in 1994 or Attleeism in 1963. If Labour are to renew, they have to consider why they found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion on so many issues, with so many voters feeling that the Party no longer shares their values.

The values gap

This year’s election confirmed what was for so long regarded as one of the shibboleths of British politics – that a party, especially a party of the centre-left – could not win power if it wasn’t seen as credible on the economy.

For a while, it seemed that Labour might have broken this rule and would become the largest party despite not being seen as credible on the economy. But the golden rule remained intact and should remind Labour that they can have as many ‘popular’ micro policies as they want, but will fail to breakthrough if they are seen as too risky a bet to run the economy. The Conservatives correctly reminded people that a strong economy was a pre-requisite for a strong NHS, strong public services and higher wages. If Labour cannot rebuild their reputation for economic credibility, then it is likely that they will be repeatedly rejected. Social justice is only an electoral asset when combined with economic credibility.

It was also clear that the doubts about Labour reached well beyond concerns about their economic credibility. On a whole range of issues, Labour simply wasn’t seen as sharing the values of the voters it sought to represent. One of the things that inspired me to set up Renewal was the number of times that I heard people on the doorstep say, ‘I used to be Labour but I don’t know any more’, that ‘Labour don’t understand people like me any more’ or that ‘Labour used to be the party for workers but they’re not any more’. The turnout in many safe Labour seats is now amongst the lowest in the country. I regarded that as an opportunity for the Conservatives. Unless Labour are able to show that they share the values of working people in England then there is the potential for a long-term realignment in British politics.

The emotional bond that existed between many voters and the Labour Party has been broken and great swathes of voters clearly don’t believe that Labour represents them, understands them or shares their values. This doesn’t mean, as some on the left seem to argue, that Labour aren’t left-wing enough. What it does mean is that on issues ranging from immigration, to welfare, to Europe, many voters don’t believe that the party understands their concerns. And they feel that the party doesn’t share their aspirations or understand their communities.

Part of this might be a logical result of the hollowing out of political parties, meaning that party membership is less and less representative of the general voting population. Recent figures from Tim Bale showed that two thirds of Labour members are middle class and 56 per cent are university graduates. One fifth of Labour’s members are in London and one-third are in the South, outside of London. Contrast this with the fact that over 70 per cent of Labour’s voters are from the C2DE social group.

Their views mark them out as opposite from the kind of voters that Labour needs to win on a variety of issues. Eight out of ten Labour members suggest that immigration has been good for the country, whereas 74 per cent of Labour voters in a 2013 YouGov survey thought that the last government had let immigration get too high. In an Ipsos MORI poll, 73 per cent of all voters supported the benefit cap in principle. It is, of course, Labour members who select candidates – meaning that the party is gradually becoming more metropolitan and less representative of voters.

For many voters at the last election, Labour simply had nothing to say to them. They had nothing to say to the aspirational individuals who want to get on in their job, own their own a home or move on to a slightly bigger home and want their children to do well. They had nothing to say about values of community, family or patriotism that come instinctively to so many voters. Rightly or wrongly, many voters regarded Labour as having a metropolitan disdain for community and the values of patriotism that flow from that.

Labour need to listen to difficult truths

Labour’s problem was that they appear utterly out of touch with most voters, just at the same time as the Conservatives have taken real efforts to broaden their appeal and to think beyond their comfort zone. This was the push that we at Renewal helped to give the party – to consider how it could appeal to those voters who had become disengaged from Labour. To do this, Conservatives had to be prepared to consider why certain groups of voters had stopped listening to them and felt detached from their values.

This meant listening to difficult truths, acting on them and being prepared to act in a counterintuitive way. Labour figures cried foul when, at Renewal, we suggested that the Conservatives could be the new workers’ party and suggested policies like boosting the Northern economy, aiming for full employment and increasing the minimum wage. This land-grab was only possible because Labour had either abandoned this ground or done little about it while in power. The fact that only 32 per cent of C2 voters voted Labour (under Blair it was over 50 per cent) illustrates just how far Labour have now gone from being seen as the party for workers.

If they are to reconnect, Labour need to consider this and genuinely listen to why voters in places like Nuneaton and Swindon turned their back on them. This doesn’t mean saying what you want voters to think, but genuinely listening to voters’ concerns, however uncomfortable that might make you. Labour members might disagree with the majority of people on immigration, welfare and austerity, but to ignore the genuine and clear concerns of a vast majority is a route to political irrelevance.

The Conservatives were marooned in opposition when they insisted on talking only to themselves, about issues that only they cared about. Labour seem to be in just that position now, happy protesting about welfare cuts and austerity, less happy talking about economic management, immigration or the EU. That is amplified by a social media that acts as a self-electing echo chamber, where views are given reinforcement by like-minded individuals. This detaches political activists more and more from the concerns of ordinary voters.

The echo chamber of Twitter is a reminder of the Michael Foot quote when he was told, a few weeks ahead of the 1983 election, that Labour was likely to lose and lose heavily. His response was that can’t be the case because thousands of enthusiastic people had been turning up at rallies. Labour shouldn’t confuse social media and activist excitement with voter engagement. They should remember that elections are won when voters feel that a party is competent, acknowledges their concerns and shares their values. All political parties should be careful not to let social media engagement distract from engagement with the voters that are needed to win an election.

Patriotism and community

The last election result should have reminded Labour that they have no divine right to exist. The meltdown in Scotland was a reminder that heartlands don’t have to stay heartlands for ever. But even if Labour win every seat in Scotland, they would only have 291 seats and would still be well behind the Conservatives. If they can’t learn to reconnect with voters in great swathes of England, then Labour risk being scuppered as a governing force. Conservatives are keen to further broaden our appeal and reach out into areas where Labour’s appeal has weakened dramatically. We sense the opportunity for realignment that exists if Labour don’t take steps to restore the trust of voters across the country, who no longer regard the party as their natural home.

Labour can only reconnect with voters if they’re prepared to show that they can be trusted with the economy and share the broader values of aspiration, community and patriotism. There is no future in Labour being seen as a metropolitan party with disdain for these values. The party was formed out of communities but seems to have lost faith in the power of strong communities and intermediate institutions. History has shown that Labour wins power when it is seen as patriotic and campaigns on the idea of national renewal, but much of the Labour Party, now rooted in metropolitan values and technocratic language, is not seen as sharing the patriotic values of the people.

This tension has, of course, always been evident within Labour. It’s best summed up by an exchange between Hugh Dalton and G.D.H. Cole, recorded in Dalton’s diary. Dalton famously said to Cole that Labour ‘would only win power with the votes of the football crowds’. In response, Cole ‘shuddered and turned away’. Labour can no longer afford to ‘shudder and turn away’ when it comes to the values of voters outside of the metropolitan South. In a phrase, the party can only win the trust of voters when it learns to ‘speak for England’ again.