I suspect it will be months before we have anything more than a fairly broadbrush understanding of what happened in last week’s election, and while the results did not surprise me, the points I really want to make are about the immediate pitfalls to avoid rather than the longer term course to chart.
The most important is that we should be learning from the winners, not repeating our own mistakes on the grounds that we didn’t make them thoroughly enough. We have rightly heard a good deal already about our need to be more in tune with the communities we seek to represent. In the sense that we should be deeply alarmed that what was founded as the party of working people seems to be going backwards at election after election among too many people engaged in routine occupations, I agree. But I am sceptical of what some of this rhetoric might mean in practice.
We should tread with a great deal of care in talking of the working class as one homogeneous group, and with a degree of humility where we listen rather than lecture. And at the other end of the internal spectrum, the recent focus on spending the party’s scarce resources on “community organising” rather than on winning elections seems to have done us few favours. Not only does it not help us win, it isn’t how the Tories beat us.
They beat us by having a leader who despite his vices consistently outpolled ours. They had a message discipline which contrasted powerfully with our regular changes of strapline. They not only held focus groups and commissioned polling, but paid attention to them. They had a manifesto which was nebulous, but avoided long lists of all-too costable policies. They did not win seats by organising rallies, waving placards, or going door-to-door telling electors they were wrong, a form of campaigning apparently called “having persuasive conversations”. There are no routes to victory that don’t involve having a good leader, a believable policy offer, and a competent campaign.
Second, with a leadership campaign in the offing, a word of caution. Labour members have a fascination with people’s backgrounds and personal journeys which reflects the sorts of social narratives we find uplifting. But after two election victories by Old Etonians in five years, we have to face reality: the public are demonstrably less interested in where people came from than in where they are going. They care whether people look as if they can do the job, not whether they embody a heartwarming story.
Johnson’s victory, like that of Blair in my childhood, reminds us that to win over voters who are less socially liberal than Labour today but more economically left-wing than the Tories, we don’t have to impersonate them. We have to convince them. We failed because Jeremy was unable to convince people that he understood them, or was in touch with their concerns, or was competent to deliver for them.
Lastly, as a party and a movement we need to look not just at the policies — whether they were right or not, whether there were too many of them or not — but at the framing. Like social democrats across the world, we keep getting beaten. The right, again and again, whips up fears of migrant workers and foreign powers, then offers a future of promised security against these supposed threats: at the same time leaving jobs, healthcare and services to the vagaries of the market.
In a world of economic uncertainty and insecurity, where industries vanish within a decade, we are failing to communicate the promise of social democracy — a state that enables and secures — in a way that gets through to people. And this at a time when our message should have greater resonance than ever before. That is a challenge for social democrats everywhere. We need to rise to it, and not hope that one more heave with a leader who isn’t up to it, running a chaotic campaign for a self-indulgent policy platform, will be enough.
We need to come to terms with our own failure, and what it will mean for our country and our party if we don’t turn this around.
Bridget’s article was first published in The Times Red Box