Not another one of those columns about why Labour lost

This is not, I promise, one of those columns.

You know the ones I’m talking about. You’ve seen a dozen of them quoted on Twitter in the past fortnight. You’ve probably read at least two or three. You may even have written one.

“Labour lost because it was too left”. “Labour lost because it was too right”. “Labour lost because Ed Miliband’s a bit crap”.

The best of this genre have been thoughtful, winningly blunt, or refulgently angry. The worst have been Owen Jones.

There’s no blame here. By my count, I have written 12 “How do you solve a problem like Scottish Labour” columns in the last eight months. Some people write because they are fed up being on the losing side; others like me because it’s morbidly fascinating to sneak into a stranger’s wake. And never underestimate the twin inspirations of a demanding editor and an impending deadline.

If half the people who claim to know how to solve the Labour Party’s problems actually knew how to solve the Labour Party’s problems the Labour Party wouldn’t have any problems to solve.

So instead of pretending to have The Answers, I propose to ask a series of questions and offer my answers. I could be off-the-mark. I could be full of kishka. But if I tell you the alternative headline for this article was “What the Labour Party has to do to win my vote” that should give an idea of what I’m trying to achieve here.

Q. Why did Labour lose the election?

Oy. How long have you got?

Weak leadership: Ed Miliband did not look or sound like a prime minister. That might ring superficial but the voters get to decide the reasons for their vote and not unreasonably many prefer strength to weakness and confidence to geeky awkwardness.

Wrong direction: Miliband was put in place by the unions to bury New Labour. He ended up burying the Labour Party, leading it to its worst result in terms of seats since 1987. (And it was a close-run thing. Miliband won only three more seats than Neil Kinnock did in that landslide thrashing.) Against an Old Etonian prime minister imposing controversial economic and welfare reforms, Labour could muster a mere 30.4% of the vote.

The party went into the election cloaked in shame for its past. At some point Labour has to forgive Tony Blair for winning them three consecutive elections. Miliband’s fundamental error was to mistake New Labour for a right-wing imposter, the Blairites killing off “real Labour” and replacing it with semi-Thatcherite pod people. New Labour was actually a project to connect Labour’s social democratic values with the aspirations of middle-ground voters. That is why Blair is the only Labour leader in the last 40 years to have won a parliamentary majority. Labour has to learn, if not to love him, at least to stop hating him long enough to learn from him. That doesn’t mean calcifying the assumptions of New Labour, for those belong to a different era no less than the assumptions that preceded them, but it does mean the party has probably done enough penance for its part in the most successful Labour government since the Attlee ministry.

Poorly-focused policy: Are you on the very bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder? Labour enticed you with an £8-an-hour minimum wage and a ban on exploitative zero-hours contracts. Are you at the very top? Labour threatened you with a hike in your income tax, a mansion tax, and a tax on bankers’ bonuses. Do you fall somewhere between these two poles? Labour didn’t have very much to say to you at all.

Wonkish communication: There’s nothing innately wrong with a former special adviser leading a political party. But when he talks to voters like he’s still a special adviser, that’s a problem.

Other stuff: David Cameron’s expert stoking of English nationalism. Fear of the SNP. The rise of Ukip. The brutal effectiveness of anti-immigration politics. Young people’s continuing self-exclusion from the democratic process. Bacon sandwiches.

Q. What are the main problems Labour has to overcome?

Parties of the left are famously conservative, a fear born of suspicion that change is a conspiracy against the purity of the cause. But as Tancredi remarks in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The Miliband experiment was an exercise in Labour convincing itself that the public had moved in its direction. Its appeal lay in allowing the party to avoid difficult questions and removing the need for it to change.

Labour requires a leader who can talk to people who aren’t Labour. That leader needs to give those people a reason to vote Labour beyond castigating them for their success and decrying their ambitions for themselves and their families. This requires a policy agenda informed by the understanding that before you can redistribute wealth you first have to create it.

There are a lot of calls for the party to have a Big Idea, something shiny and new and ideally with a sesquipedalian guru attached to it. (New Labour entertained a revolving door of obscure thinkers of varying intellectual calibre: Anthony Giddens with his Third Way; Amitai Etzioni’s communitarianism; Geoff Mulgan and “connexity”.) What it actually needs is to grasp a simpler, more prosaic idea: The “fair go”. Most people expect it for themselves, think others should take it when it comes along, and want to see those who grasp it rewarded.

Q. What do people think are problems that aren’t actually problems?

Iraq: It remains a sore spot for the intellectuals and the activist class. Labour could disavow the war and its corrosive impact on public trust in the Blair government or it could bullishly defend the intervention and its continuity with the internationalist tradition. “The Labour Party: Smashing fascist dictatorships since 1945.” More prudently, the party might come to an understanding with its malcontents. Not so much “don’t mention the war” as “don’t let it sour politics for a generation”.

Immigration: Labour cannot out-demagogue the Tories or Ukip on immigration and it shouldn’t try. No more control-our-borders coffee mugs, please. There is a long game to be played in which parties that look and sound like modern Britain will be rewarded by increasingly diverse demographics.

Q. Do we even need a Labour party?

If a Labour party did not exist, would we want to invent one? If we believe that there should be a party to advocate for the transformative power of government while nudging the market towards fairer outcomes, then the answer must be an unequivocal Yes.

Q. What’s the point of the Labour Party?

You mean there’s a nobler purpose than just having a decent internal rammy every few years?

The point of Labour is summed up in the 14 most important words in the party’s constitution: “By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.”

Allow me to expand on this: The purpose of the Labour Party is to represent the interests of working people across the UK in partnership with likeminded political parties and civil organisations around the world. By working people, I don’t mean in the Marxist sense of a rigidly defined class but rather those on low and middle incomes who work hard and want to get themselves and their families ahead in life. It need not hew to any theory of social arrangements but it should generally be for fairness, compassion, and openness and be against injustice, exploitation, and insularity. If you must call it anything, by all means call it centre-left but remember that the adjective and noun take equal weight.

While for and against clearly defined values, Labour should not be a party organised around class conflict. The 20th century is dead and buried and, in this regard, good riddance. Instead of pitting the poorest against the wealthiest, it should seek to include both extremes and the vast bulk in the middle in a mutually beneficial social contract. The cause should not be a flag, as in the case of Scottish Nationalism or One Nation Toryism, but a fair and open society at ease with itself.

Labour should strive to create the circumstances where individuals and communities can prosper through moderately progressive taxation, redistribution of resources and opportunities, and the maintenance of a thrifty but compassionate social welfare system. It should encourage economic growth then use it to change society rather than damning wealth as an inherently bad thing. Labour need not pursue equality of outcome when equality of opportunity will do most of the heavy lifting. But where the market fails, Labour should offer an alternative; where people make poor choices, it should offer second chances.

Q. Is all hope lost for Labour?

Iain Martin seems to reckon so and party grandees have been making gloomy pronouncements about the future.

While it is true the UK leadership contest lacks a Blair-style heavyweight, there is much to impress in contenders such as Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh. In Scotland, the party’s deputy leader Kezia Dugdale shows real promise, as do activists like Melanie Ward and Monica Lennon, Cat Headley and Kenny Young. Defeated MPs Tom Greatrex, Gregg McClymont, Gemma Doyle, and Thomas Docherty should be offered a fast-track to Holyrood, where they would sprinkle some fairy dust over the parliamentary group.

Make no mistake about it. Things are bad. But despair is a spent force in politics and while Labour has lost its heartlands, it has not lost its heart.\

Q. Since you raise it, what about Scotland?

I was hoping you wouldn’t bring that up.

Scotland is tough. Scotland is three-day-old-roast-beef-sandwich tough. There are no simple answers, no shortcuts. “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” wrote Max Weber. “It takes both passion and perspective.”

The first task is to drill through the bark of hostility that now encases the Scottish electorate in all matters concerning the Labour Party. Activists on the doorsteps during the election campaign reported that many voters had stopped listening, even as the party tried to engage them on its most radical manifesto in a generation. This carries a ghost of the policy/image disconnect that bedevilled the Tories during their Blair-era political winter. Focus group participants would chirp in approval at key Conservative proposals but recoil once learning of their political filiation. At least the Tories had redoubts in the south east to sustain themselves through that long backlash; Scottish Labour has Marchmont and Morningside.

What Labour needs is viability and that means a respectable performance at Holyrood in 2016. First keep the store; work on the retailing later.

Don’t assume that a decent UK leader and a winning policy platform will sweep Scotland back with the rest of the nation. England may be won back in five or ten years’ time; Scotland will take longer. The reason is that England is a politically mature country, where public sympathy regularly oscillates between competing parties. That is not the case in Scotland. In the 18 general elections from 1945 to 2010, the UK voted Labour and Conservative an even nine times each; Scotland chose Labour 15 times and the Tories just three. The longest period of uninterrupted support for the same party across the UK was 18 years; in Scotland, 46 years. Scotland’s masochistic attachment to losers and parties that take its votes for granted is beguiling but very real nonetheless.

This is why, barring a miraculous victory in May 2016, Scottish Labour should debate the merits of reorganising as a separate, centre-left party affiliated but not answerable to UK Labour. I remain ambivalent on the question and note Tom Harris’s opposition but it deserves a conversation. The change would be psychically painful but if Scottish Labour is an ultimately irreparable brand that faces decades in the wilderness, there may be no alternative. The new party would not be a mini-me nationalist outfit and could agitate for the same Labour values with a different name.

Finally, there are those who think the party should shut up about the constitution. After all, warning about a second independence referendum and the consequences of full fiscal autonomy failed spectacularly to halt the Nationalist juggernaut. I agree and disagree. Labour needs to get back to the bread and butter issues: Jobs, health, and education. But it should rid itself once and for all of devophobia. Devolution has, far from killing Nationalism stone dead, given it wings undreamt of by its arrogant and short-sighted architects. (We are long overdue a critical reassessment of that unlikeliest of founding fathers Donald Dewar.)

Still, the process cannot be set in reverse and even trying to stay it is no longer an option and so Labour should switch to the federal track. The establishment of the Labour Campaign for Federalism is encouraging. A federal union would allow the governing settlement across the UK to work more efficiently and introduce some much-needed political normalcy to Scotland by establishing a link between public expenditure and fiscal reality. Blaming every social and economic ill on wicked Westminster would suddenly get a lot more difficult. Power devolved is grievance denied.

Q. Any other advice for Labour?

Listen very carefully to everything Len McCluskey says. Then do the exact opposite.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Ed Miliband for Leader by Creative Commons 2.0.

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