The nightmare of Friday 13th December is something that Labour Party members and supporters should never forget. I watched in despair as brilliant colleague after brilliant colleague was defeated by Conservative MPs who will do so little for the four million British children in poverty, or for those suffering under the social care crisis, or for the millions in precarious, poorly paid jobs.
It was truly a horror movie in the making.
It is deeply disappointing that voters looked to the right rather than the left in order to tackle the country’s most serious problems, but it was also completely predictable and understandable – we got what we deserved.
In part this was about Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of leadership. He was not trusted on national security, anti-Semitism or economic competence, and these fatal weaknesses were of course compounded by his decision to alienate millions in our Leave-voting areas by backing a second referendum.
But it many ways this defeat was decades in the making.
The effects of globalisation mean that in 2019 politics is less about Left vs Right, and more about worldviews and values. On the one hand we have the liberal, open, global outlook of those who are usually younger, typically graduates, and often living in big cities. This worldview says that open borders are an indisputable good that deliver a better world replete with opportunity, and it’s a belief system has come to dominate my party’s membership and voter base in metropolitan areas.
But for too long we’ve ignored those who live in smaller cities and towns, who are often older and haven’t been to university, and who are concerned about how open borders and fast-paced economic change have ripped up their high streets and seen jobs disappear overseas.
Within Labour we cannot entertain any view that says our party, and country, should be for the former group but not the latter. History tells us that Labour only wins when we speak for a broad-based coalition that unites across place, age and education.
This is not about picking sides. This is about being a truly Whole Nation party and movement.
A favourite attack line from self-appointed standard bearers of the left is the ridiculous idea that if we are to appeal to more voters in Northern, Midlands and Welsh towns we, for some strange reason, need to throw ethnic minorities and young people under a bus. This is absolute rubbish, and it exposes their inherent prejudices: that all these working class Leave voters are xenophobes, racists or bigots who should not be allowed to form part of our coalition. In reality the vast majority of those who voted Leave on 23 June 2016 or Conservative on 12 December 2019 did so because they felt that they were acting in the best interests of their family, community and country, and we must see every single one of them as potential Labour voters whose trust we must regain.
In fact, the vast majority are socially liberal, and good, honest welcoming people, who are committed to forming communities in which everyone, regardless of colour, religion, sexuality or gender, get along. Many are tough on crime and believe that immigration should be controlled and managed fairly at UK level, but this does not make them illiberal.
If there is a blockage to Labour building a winning coalition, it certainly isn’t the views of the voters in my Aberavon constituency. No, the blockage is the inherent prejudices of those who simply cannot understand that Leave voters are a vitally important part of Labour’s past, present and future.
Ultimately, this is about security.
The majority of the population want the government to prioritise offering the public a sense of safety and security over freedom and opportunity. For far too long Labour has come across as a party that disdains people’s desire for security, and has nothing but contempt for notions of tradition, identity and belonging. This has to change.
First, we must promote economic security. Our manifesto had strong policies to ensure people have the skills, resources and power to keep their heads above water, but was it really credible? Did people believe we could be trusted with the public purse? 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, and we should be reminding the public of this proud moment in our history, at every possible opportunity. We must show we know who our allies are, and that 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. Let’s start bringing people together, let’s start talking the language of belonging and shared citizenship, and let’s be proud about doing it.
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 also tackling the climate emergency – a great example of how to unite our electoral coalition around a tangible plan and a sense of common purpose.
This leadership contest cannot and must not be about steadying the ship. The challenges are too great, and the rudderless drift and sense of existential crisis have been going on for far too long.
It has to be about changing course. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to start re-building trust and support in our heartlands, as the first step to stabilising and strengthening our electoral coalition – what Lisa Nandy has so rightly called the Red Bridge.
I’m backing Lisa because she has a profound understanding of why and how we have got ourselves into this mess, and she knows how to re-build that Red Bridge: investment-driven growth, radical devolution of power and resource, closing the gap between London and the rest of the country, all underpinned by a patriotic dedication to keeping our country secure and united.
Over the coming weeks and months all eyes will turn to our Labour members. This will arguably be the most important political choice they will ever make. I urge them to reflect deeply, and to vote for the candidate who is best placed to re-connect our party and our movement with the communities who deserted us on 12 December.