Saturday 20 June 2020

Labour Together: A Compliment to the Left

Yesterday, we saw how the Labour Together inquiry into the party's 2019 election performance was lacking in certain areas. But what pleases is how its conclusions point at the best way of dealing with the situation we're in. For instance, the standout question the strategy chapter asks is "We need to understand the coalition of voters whose support we must win to form a government." Hoo-bloody-ray.

The report says,
Labour’s current voter base is narrowly formed demographically, centred in cities and is largely liberal, culturally open and historically remain-minded. While there is still further scope to increase turnout amongst younger voters, many of whom did not vote in 2019 but did in 2017, this is necessary but not sufficient in order to win an election.
You didn't need to undertake an inquiry and commission a load of polls to find this out. They might have asked the left who never stopped talking about this (me, ahem, included). That's why it's the height of stupidity for Labour to push policies and party lines that might alienate our new base, thanks to our them not, in the main, having a deep affection for the party but support it because it, at least under Jeremy Corbyn, supported them. Having established kicking our electorate is a bad idea, where does Labour pick up those extra votes?

Having got a polling company to do the maths, Labour Together sketch out three possible strategies. The first is winning back the seats we lost by emphasising the Blue Labour rubbish, but running the risk of splintering Labour's new base and dumping us below 2017's result. Exactly right. The second involves what Charles Kennedy unconvincingly called 'tough liberalism', or what we might recognise as reheated Blairism: going hard on law and order but making clear you're still socially liberal. This could win back some former voters but unlikely to reach the Brexity-types for not being convincing-enough authoritarians, and also drive off some of Labour's base for not being liberal enough. Ouch. The alternative to these two is the hard road of, well, building out these contradictions: "The message of change would aim to enthuse and mobilise existing support and younger voters while at the same time being grounded in community, place and family, to speak to former “leave-minded” Labour voters." Building this requires an adroit and savvy leadership.

The good news is the Labour Together focus groups bringing together small town remainers and urban leavers found common ground. Revelation alert, they want Labour to be for things as opposed to just against things. It goes on to say Labour needs to offer security and the prospect of change, but be related to where people are. Top one nice one sorted as the kids used to say, but how do we go about building a strategy like this and pulling it off? Going where people are is one, which involves the shadow cabinet doing listening tours all over the UK. Okay. More interesting is the (belated) realisation Labour is part of a movement, and that perhaps mobilising it for such an initiative is a good idea. Well, yes, but why limit it to getting bums on seats for a Nick Thomas-Symonds appearance?

This would be a good moment to dust off one critique of Labourism or another, because it's all about letting the politicians front everything and activists having walk on parts as canvassing fodder, and voters as, um, voters. Chapter nine of the report was therefore a a genuine surprise. An emphasis on a relational as opposed to a transactional approach, Labour doing things other than vote-catching to build up this position of trust, fitting every second order election into a long-term plan building to the main event, an overhaul of party practices (hear, hear), thinking about how the party and the wider labour movement can come together to empower communities, and a serious approach to workplace organisation. Yes, you heard that right. We are getting close to a realisation that Labour has to take a class approach to organising, and to winning. Pardon me as I splutter my coffee.

This is all very encouraging, and the strategy chapters are worth reading if you don't bother looking at the rest of the report. However, we need to be mindful of a few things. While setting out what Jeremy Corbyn had in mind when he talked about Labour as a movement, any strategy has to anticipate institutional inertia and resistance. I'm not necessarily talking about sabotage, which is to be expected, but the fact party culture is election focused and little else. To Labour Together's credit, they talk about the importance of political education but unless it is pushed from the top, from affiliates, and from a cadre of members themselves, it will be a dead letter - a good idea pushed to the side as the next round of voter ID calls. And the second is, well, the leadership. Keir polished up his labour movement creds for the leadership contest, but since then they've gone back under the stairs with the dust pan and the bags of spuds. There's nothing to suggest he's going to try being anything other than the Mr Competent and Mr Technocratic routines we've seen this far. Still, we're only in the foothills of his leadership, but the signs aren't encouraging.

Yet there's an opportunity here for the left. We know organising, and we know Labour has to be more like a movement for it to win. This report drips with our ideas, written up and awarded the badge of wonky respectability. Perhaps the Corbynite left should treat it as a compliment of sorts. And an invitation.

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1 comment:

ActonMan said...

In our London CLP post-election debrief we were puzzled why we could get hundreds of active members out on the streets to sustain our majority, but so many of the 'Red wall' seats we lost didn't seem able to do the same. It's interesting that the Report mentions the problem of how these 'core' CLPs didn't seem able to turn out in force to support their candidates. But I'd ask these now ex-Labour MPs, many of whom were generally unsupportive of Corbyn and the direction the Party was moving in, what they'd been doing for the previous however many years they'd been sitting MPs to build up the Party membership in their constituency and to maintain links with their local community. Clearly not enough, if complaints from voters about 'not listening' and 'losing touch' are to be believed. And it didn't help that many Labour candidates' response to door step comments about 'that terrible Jeremy Corbyn' was hearty agreement.