The darkest hours of 13 Friday are a fairly obvious setting for a horror movie, and last Friday was certainly that. We witnessed a bloodbath that saw Labour having its heart ripped out in Ashfield, Bolsover, Blyth Valley, Don Valley, Leigh, Redcar, Scunthorpe, Wakefield, Wrexham — the list goes on.
Indeed, Labour’s losses read like an A-Z of Labour’s English and Welsh heartlands, many of which had been our strongholds for the best part of a century and are populated by the people that Labour was founded to represent, but who for decades have witnessed global economic forces combine with inactive governments to rip up their high streets, close down their factories and offer precisely nothing in return.
I was absolutely heartbroken to think of the devastation that another five years of Tory government will cause, as my esteemed colleagues were replaced by Conservative MPs who will do so little for the four million UK children in poverty, or the thousands of homeless people left out in the cold this Christmas. But is even more devastating that those voters who elected them looked to the right rather than the left in order to tackle the country’s most serious problems. If Labour is only a party for Lambeth and not Leigh, Shoreditch and not Sedgefield, then we are failing one half of the country, and do not deserve to be seen as a serious party of government.
People in these places have noticed that for far too long the economy — and politics and culture more widely — have been rigged in favour of London, the south east and other major cities They have noticed that Labour’s recent journey towards being a party of urban graduates has been a driver of this great unbalancing. At both the 2017 and 2019 general elections Labour was embraced by voters with more of a cosmopolitan outlook, but roundly rejected by people with more communitarian values. This must change if we are serious about re-building the red wall. Failure to learn these lessons will lead to irrelevance. This is an existential moment for our party, and for our movement.
The nightmare of Friday 13 December needs to shake my party into action. This wasn’t Boris Johnson’s victory, this was Labour’s failure. Our leadership failed to gain public trust on national security, failed to present a manifesto that was realistic, and failed to stand up to the People’s Vote Campaign (which has resulted in a hard Brexit and a Tory government rather than a soft Brexit and a chance of a post-Brexit Labour Britain).
It is therefore essential that every Labour member at every level of the party asks themselves three questions:
First, do we actually want to win elections? It sounds obvious, but how many on the hard left emotionally felt the hurt of the defeat in the same way as me and my activists who spent six weeks on the doorstep meeting victims of Universal Credit. The comments made by the likes of Ash “I’m literally a communist” Sarkar and Jon “winning elections only matters to the elites?” Lansman pose a danger to those who need a Labour government next time.
Second, are we going to blame the media, or are we going to look in the mirror and change our party? We know the media has traditionally been biased against us, but we’ve won elections in the past in spite of that bias, and we can do so again. It is never going to change, so why waste precious time and energy complaining about it? No onlooker respects the football manager who blames the referee — and it rarely helps the team improve for the next game.
Third, do we recognise that Leave voters are every bit as important to the past, present and future of our Party as Remain voters? We’re an internationalist party, but we should also understand the concern that voters have around handing over control to supranational organisations like the EU, and to multinational corporations who lack an ounce of interest in British citizens’ wellbeing. For many people open borders and pooling sovereignty means a lack of control. Many Labour members will disagree, but this “Leave view” is not racist or xenophobic — it is a perfectly legitimate worldview.
This brings me to what Labour must do next. In short, we must become a party of security as well as freedom and opportunity. The vast majority of the population want the government to prioritise public safety and security over freedoms. Labour must balance the two.
First, we must promote economic security. On a local level this means taking forward the best of our manifesto – like our commitment to adult learning, supporting collective bargaining and putting workers on boards — to ensure people have the skills, resources and power to keep their heads above water. Nationally, it means making sure our manifesto is ambitious but also credible. Our 2017 promises were bold and fully costed, our 2019 offer was a Christmas wish-list.
Second, we need to prioritise national security. It was a Labour government that took our country into Nato. We know who our allies are, and we know who our enemies are, too. We are committed internationalists, but we are also patriots.
And thirdly, we need to offer people a sense of cultural security and cohesion by bringing people together, uniting and empowering families and communities. This means devolving power out of Westminster across England in particular, but it also means recognising that if we want to drive forward a successful, diverse, tolerant society we need to focus far more on what we have in common than our differences. Labour needs to stop playing politics with identity and start bringing people together.
These seismic shifts must be combined with some of the best policies of our manifesto, not least our commitment to a green industrial revolution which could create hundreds of thousands of jobs and apprenticeships in post-industrial areas whilst tackling the climate emergency.
Keynsian, investment-driven policies, combined with a patriotic dedication to keeping our country secure and united; this is the tonic we need. It’s now up to the Labour members as to whether we select a “Whole Nation Labour” leader who can bring our society back together, or whether we face another horror show in 2024.