By Alex Mistlin
JFK’s famous phrase “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan” has rung true in British politics as all of the movers and shakers in the Labour party’s leadership contest have been quick to orphan this month’s shock General Election defeat. Ed Miliband has been left to shoulder the blame despite even his harshest critics applauding him on what was undoubtedly a well fought campaign against insurmountable odds. Make no mistake the Labour party faces an existential crisis, annihilated in Scotland, unwanted in Middle England and threatened by UKIP in the industrial north, the coming weeks and months represent a must-win battle for the party’s soul. Just as in 1983, Labour seem set for a minimum of 10 years in the political wilderness. The challenge for whoever becomes party leader on September 12th is to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Ever since the dust settled on the dismal election result, anyone with any ambition of leading the party has been speaking the language of Blairism. “Aspiration” has become the new buzzword in a campaign that seems to have been already sewn up by a cabal of oxbridge-educated, former SpAds who see a return to the centre-ground as a precondition of a Labour recovery. I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with being from a certain background (although Tristram Hunt’s did him no favours) merely that the shameful lack of diversity only lends legitimacy to Labour MP Simon Danczuk’s wail that “the party has been hijacked by a metropolitan elite”. Both Danczuk and “moderniser” Liz Kendall embody a party no longer at ease with itself as spoof articles like this make clear.
Undoubtedly, Labour did fail to promote a message of increased prosperity for those people who already own houses and are either retired or in full-time employment. Subsequently, It would be churlish of Labour not to recast themselves as the party of “aspiration”. However, they must be careful to retain a social democratic perspective on the meaning of that word; aspiration is not about allowing those who are already rich to remain rich to the detriment of society but about social mobility, equality of opportunity and property rights for all regardless of their background. The task of the Labour Party going forward therefore is not to sleepwalk into Blairite territory by becoming the Tories with a social conscience but instead to appeal to the shared interests of an increasingly fragmented electorate, in order to create a new coalition of progressive voters.
This cannot happen while the perception remains that Labour is the puppet of the unions. The trade union link is one Labour should cherish but the biggest unions are increasingly becoming an albatross tied around the party’s neck. In particular, Len McCluskey is frequently presented as a divisive anachronism meddling in party affairs and abusing the power and profile that comes from providing 27.4% of Labour’s funding. However, the most worrying thing about Labour’s dependence on the unions is that not only is union membership falling but it is literally dying out. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills reports that “over the eighteen years to 2013, the proportion of employees who belonged to a trade union has fallen in all age groups except those aged over 65”. Furthermore, in today’s Queen’s Speech, the PM announced a trade unions bill which will require trade union members to opt in if they want to pay a political levy. If implemented, Labour’s funding would take a serious hit over the next parliament. While this represents a fundamental challenge to the party it is also a fantastic opportunity. Now more than ever, Labour must redefine its relationship with the unions so as to continue to represent this traditional arm of the labour movement while broadening out its funding base to better reflect Britain’s more dynamic workforce. Labour cannot afford to elect a leader who will neglect unions entirely but neither can they repeat the mistake of 2010 by ignoring a prime-minister in waiting in favour of Len McCluskey’s preferred candidate.
Finally, Labour must learn from the successes of the SNP by building a grassroots movement that takes on the concerns of both die hard supporters and the unconvinced. For too long, Labour have sought to act in a self-interested manner, too keen to centralise power and too prone to knee-jerk authoritarianism. With the Liberal Democrats in tatters, now is the time for Labour to wholeheartedly adopt those liberal values that would serve them well with the large portion of the electorate who are suspicious of big government. For instance, Ed Miliband’s principled refusal to hold a referendum on our membership of the EU was a misstep. Labour should be itching to make the positive case for remaining in the EU and a greater commitment to federalism in general. Similarly, proper devolution to the English regions shouldn’t be seen as throwing a bone to the pitbull of English nationalism but a progressive move towards handing decision making powers to those who are most affected by them. Ultimately, the Labour movement should be first and foremost about giving people the tools to empower themselves rather than a self serving splutter of benevolent voices within the British Establishment.
To my mind, the crux of Labour’s problem is that, as the political centre drifts ever rightward, it becomes increasingly difficult to see who the Labour Party actually represents. Labour needs to redefine the labour movement as a grassroots one with a commitment to progressivism, real democracy and liberal values. Within 10 years the political map will be unrecognisable. For the Labour Party to survive it must embrace the change by becoming the vanguard of a new political revolution. I fear, the Labour leadership campaign will revolve around picking a leader (likely Andy Burnham) who would have stood a better chance in 2015. If the party instead looks to the future, by setting out a cohesive long-term vision, then victory will be achievable in 2020.