Originally published by LabourList and the Fabian Society in March 2016, updated in January 2017
Six months before the 2015 general election, some of us identified the question of “how can Labour win in England?” as an existential challenge. MPs like John Denham, Jon Cruddas and Steve Reed, PPCs including Polly Billington and Rowenna Davis, local government leaders, and key Labour organisers were all actively advocating a proactive strategy for Labour in England. We saw Labour being squeezed on all sides – by a ruthlessly pragmatic Conservative party, by a populist UKIP appealing to older voters and the left-behind, by an idealistic Green party enlisting young and progressive voters. Anticipating wipe-out in Scotland, we argued that Labour needed to present a better offer to English voters.
We were ignored – but we were right. Labour won less than 32 per cent of the vote in England, while the Conservatives received 41 per cent and won more than half as many seats. Remarkably, the Tories made more gains in England than Labour did. Labour did best in safer seats with diverse populations, high levels of public sector employment, lower average income and higher-than-average unemployment. But in most of the key marginals, where it needed to surge, it suffered.
As the battleground shifts further against it, the Labour party will never again win a UK parliamentary majority unless it can transform its relationship with English voters. Here is a brief sketch of seven essential steps toward renewal – first written earlier this year in the run-up to the referendum, and updated only slightly to take account of recent events. Our hole has deepened, and the warnings sounded back in March have been painfully validated. But I will repeat them. Forgive me if I am blunt.
First, an English Labour movement must be established, to help renew our identity and how we connect in our communities. I argued previously for an English Labour party. But as this crisis has deepened, so has the risk of internal party machination dragging us down. At its moment of inception, the English Labour movement must be free to build a broad campaigning network, to face outward to the country and to engage the publics it most needs to reach.
English Labour could grow rapidly into a key pillar of the wider Labour movement, perhaps as a 21st century socialist society. It should demand the right for local candidates and parties to stand under the banner of English Labour, and help develop the ideas, networks, campaigns and organising practices that will become the building blocks of victory. But it need not force itself into the shackles of already-creaking party bureaucracy. Turning outward to our communities and the electorate matters far more.
Second, I sounded the alarm over the European referendum, calling for a distinctive English Labour voice in the campaign, and warning that Labour risked ceding the ground of patriotism and opening itself up to an undertow that could last a generation. I wrote that the cosmopolitan case for Europe was complacent and insufficient.
So it proved. Our English revolt saw every region except for London voting out. The undertow is already fierce – polls show more than half of Labour Leave voters are drifting away. After this shock, many more are now recognising the need to re-ground their values and reconnect with the public. But too much of the response thus far has been reactive or triangulating. English Labour can best respond to the Brexit shock by building a positive, progressive agenda for Britain in the longer run.
Third, English Labour must be a plural movement. It must bring together its increasingly diverse constituencies in a bigger tent, unite them through far-sighted policy, shared values and projects, and lively and constructive discussions, and open itself up to allied movements and forces.
Labour cannot win in England without the suburbs, shires and market towns, as well as the cities. It cannot win if it alienates either Leave or Remain voters. It cannot win without the white working class; urban and cosmopolitan progressives; ethnic minority voters; or the striving middle classes in marginals. None of these constituencies can be taken for granted or ceded. An increasingly diverse coalition demands a far more open, pragmatic and plural way for Labour to manage its conversations and doctrines. Even and especially if it still aspires to majority rule, Labour cannot avoid some form of coalition politics in the 21st century.
Fourth, English Labour must be an open movement. It needs first and foremost to build a deep and authentic conversation with the English people whom it seeks to represent. Labour today is mired in tribal divisions, obsessed with various dying pieties, and failing profoundly to connect with the public. English Labour must turn outward again to understand and reconnect with its fellow-citizens. Strategies like participatory assemblies, online engagement and open primaries will help to renew the party and turn it outward. Only then can it win. Only then will it deserve to win.
Fifth, English Labour must be a networked movement. I know from personal experience how platforms like 38 Degrees and Change.org have been able to tap into and channel the democratic energies of millions more people than have joined the Labour Party, even after recent influxes. I spent time recently with the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, which is powered by millions of small donors. It has taken networked campaigning to a whole new level, empowering hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Labour’s failure to embrace these 21st century politics is chronic and shameful. Unless the party wakes up soon, other populist forces will take its place. This is not a matter of bolt-on techniques; it is a matter of fundamental political identity and strategy. Labour needs a swift DNA transplant: an evolutionary leap, rather than a factional tug-of-war. Its best hope is to anchor itself back into our diverse society by renewing its movement pillars, with a new English Labour at the forefront.
Sixth, English Labour must be a populist movement. The desiccated, technocratic language and behaviour of too many in Labour during the last two decades has left them looking like the few, rather than rooted in the many. English Labour must be unashamedly popular and populist – engaging with culture, with identity, with anger and passion. It must start to seriously challenge entrenched elites in the City and Westminster, while occupying and defining the radical centre rather than painting itself solely into a left-wing corner.
Populism need not mean dumbing-down, compromise or appealing to people’s baser instincts. It can be one of the most positive and transformative forces in politics, as we saw in America’s Roosevelt presidencies. Good populism begins with the apparently simple step of taking the people’s feelings and experiences seriously. It does not end there. It draws us into a collective journey, giving us agency so that together we can transform our society, institutions and values for the better.
The seventh and final step is this: English Labour must be a movement of radical common sense. Left-right ideological battles tacitly accept the status quo and turn off a wide swathe of the public. Common sense and radicalism are two of the strongest values and traditions of England, and they have never been so needed. If we harness them together, we can build a new political economy which is on the side of the people, and which deserves their passionate support. We must be fiercely for enterprise and human invention. We must reinvent an entrepreneurial and enabling state, and craft a new settlement for care and social needs.
People everywhere deserve a better life. But we have forgotten how to connect with them, how to serve them, and how to win. This is the challenge of 21st century politics. The stakes have never been higher.
It is increasingly clear that unless we do a better job of rising to this challenge, populist elites will seize power and hold sway – and we will have let them. They are growing stronger by the day, but they are growing into the space that we have left for them. So let’s take back our democracy and our future. Let’s start today.