The Labour leadership contest isn’t discussing the real barriers to the party winning power
We are now in the midst of another Labour leadership election campaign and what has surprised me is that the relentless focus has been on whether the party should stick on the left or move towards the centre. The candidates and pundits have discussed little else.
But over the last four General Elections Labour have lost from the centre under Brown, centre-left under Miliband and hard-left under Corbyn. All of them have come up short.
The problems facing Labour are much deeper and cannot be solved with a different set of policies announced during an election campaign.
The most fundamental problem facing Labour – the ‘elephant in the room’ – is that they’re unlikely to win another election outright under the current FPTP arrangement.
Labour’s problems at the 2019 General Election wasn’t just in their percentage of the vote but also that their vote was poorly distributed across constituencies. Their younger voters tend to be concentrated in urban areas where Labour piled up the votes while Conservative voters are more evenly spread across the UK.
The boundary changes that are expected to be pushed through by the government would make things even worse for Labour. Under the new boundaries, the Conservative Party would increase its majority to 104 if the general election result were repeated.
Add to this the fact that Labour has been replaced in Scotland as the centre-left party by the SNP, and the road to a working majority seems all but impossible for Labour barring a massive political landslide.
During the last century, the Tories were in power for 80% of that time. This could happen again during this century if Labour don’t recognize that the way forward is to embrace electoral reform and show a readiness to work with other parties. The Remain campaign provided a good opportunity for Labour to work with other parties but Corbyn spurned such chances and electoral reform barely got a mention during his time as leader.
But FPTP works against Labour in other ways too, because the Tories have long periods of single-party rule during which time they can abolish many of the good things that Labour did such as sure-start. This would be unlikely to happen under a proportional system because they would not be ruling as a single-party government.
Labour is no longer in a world of two-party politics and will have to work with other parties on the left, such as the SNP, Plaid, and the Greens, if they are to have any chance of winning again. Yet, the Labour leadership contest suggests that they still retain the pretence that nothing has changed and they can win a majority under different leadership.
Another factor which lost Labour the campaign in 2019 was Brexit. But while the leadership campaign has endlessly debated whether the party’s position on Brexit was the right one, they have missed the point that it was the failure to take a position that was so damaging.
Whether Labour liked it or not, the 2019 election was always going to be about Brexit. But Corbyn could not bring himself around to commit to one side or the other. Probably because his tribal background was on the Brexit side, but his party were predominantly Remain.
His neutralism was doomed to failure because poll evidence going back to the summer had shown that Corbyn’s stance on Brexit was almost guaranteed to ensure the Tories stay in power. He found himself on the defensive to the point where he avoided talking about it during the campaign.
Brexit was always a toxic issue for Labour, but, as leader of the opposition, he should have declared his preference – even if it meant he believed that leaving could be the best choice. He would have gained more credibility and may well have gained more votes because politicians are expected to take a lead – especially on issues which will have a devastating effect on our lives for many decades to come.
It also meant that the flaws in Johnson’s Brexit stance was never really challenged. Labour should learn lessons from their Brexit stance – in particular, that fudged ambiguity does not go down well with voters.
Another key issue little discussed during the leadership contest is Labour’s attachment to tribal posturing, which is so off-putting to voters.
For example, Rebecca Long-Bailey was clearly trying to appeal to the Corbyn tribe by giving him 10 out of 10 for his GE performance. Yet, he lost – and lost badly. She has been mocked and criticised for this remark, and it does not seem to have helped her leadership bid.
Our First Minister of Wales has also appealed to the Corbyn tribe – and was rewarded by becoming FM as a result of appealing to the Corbynites. Recently Mark Drakeford went further by saying that Labour should keep its policies intact for the next election.
These are extraordinary comments – particularly given that the UK will be a completely different country post-Brexit along with the likely impact of AI on the economy in five years from now.
As voters increasingly disown attachments to tribes, Labour should do likewise and focus on developing a social democratic vision for the post-Brexit age.
Labour has been a great force for change over many years and helped to transform Britain for the better – particularly for the least well off.
However, if Labour are going to return to power soon, they must undertake some heavy lifting and fundamentally change their approach to winning power.
Otherwise, the next century, like the last, will be a century of Tory hegemony.