Take the long way home: How Labour could come back from this

Despite some controversy, for Ed Miliband and Labour Together to take a look at the Party’s failings in this month’s election seems like a wise idea.  As part of its deliberations the group will no doubt be tempted to look back at historical precedent.  So was last week’s election result 1997 all over again, with Boris Johnson cast as Tony Blair, leading us into a new dawn where things can only get better?  Or 1983, with Jeremy Corbyn being trounced just like Michael Foot as he tried to sell another “longest suicide note in history” in the form of a hyper-left-wing grab bag of a manifesto?  Both comparisons have been made; both are wide of the mark.

There are some similarities with 1997, or at least Johnson and Cummings would like there to be: essentially, like Blair and Mandelson, they have tried to sell a product heavy on optimism and light on detail.  But that year saw a change of team, the reds taking over from the tired and demoralised blues, not basically more of the same old Tories.  And however hard they try to dress it up the main emotion in this election was not hope but anger about Brexit and particular contempt for a Labour Party which has not tended to its heartlands for years, maybe decades.

And there is some resemblance to 1983 too.  Like then, the left-wing programme for government certainly didn’t help Labour; nor has the capture of the Party by a militant fringe unrepresentative of most of the broad church of the left.  However, the Tories won in part because of the Falklands factor and in part because there was widespread recognition of the need for a revolution, the rupture from the past that Thatcherism offered and ‘Johnsonism’, if such a thing exists (and it doesn’t so far), does not.

So neither of those comparisons is apt.  In fact, 1992 is closer, with a newish Conservative leader winning an unexpectedly clear majority (although more so in Johnson’s case than Major’s) whilst offering both continuity and renewal.  Then as now the Tories were in knots over Europe, and lying about their true intentions and actions in Brussels (in the earlier case, about the ERM).  And 1992 would be the best place for Labour to look for its route back to power.

Miliband’s group might note that a door has been opened for them by Johnson’s insistence that a free trade agreement will be concluded by the end of 2020.  If a deal can’t be done, or only done on unfavourable terms, and it does lead to adverse economic impacts such as Nissan closing down, or less totemic, smaller scale, deaths by a thousand cuts, then it would not be hard for a Labour leader to construct a narrative about how this is what the Party had always warned against, that a cautious and closer Brexit had always been the way to go.  Labour Together might conclude that the Red Wall has only lent the Conservatives its votes and they will quickly take them back if Johnson and co fail to deliver – or in fact make things worse.

But hopefully the review will also conclude that Labour has no chance unless it moves quickly to seriously reinvent its leadership.  It needs a plausible leader with plausible policies that appeal to and will deliver for ordinary voters rather than just excite the over age student politicians currently dominating the structures of the party.  Can it do so?  Some aspects of the post mortem of the past ten days do not bode well.  But Labour Together seems to accept it lost for deep-seated reasons that date back over years and often decades, and that blaming unfair media coverage, Brexit and a weak leader is not enough.  Perhaps they will even admit that a ‘Blair moment’ is required; that this needs to be 1994 and not any of the other dates at all.

Impossible comes true: Is the General Election the Greatest Show?

This brief article (some might say rant) was written the day before the UK election on 12 December 2019 at the request of the Holmes Report, which published an abridged version of it on election day.

This has been a deeply depressing election, another twist in the downward spiral that has been British politics for the past 20 or 30 years.  To an extent political parties always make promises that are at best optimistic and at worse highly unlikely ever to be delivered (aka lies), but this one has gone several steps further with the whole exercise being based on untruths.  The Tories are not going to sell off the NHS to the Americans.  Jo Swinson is not going to be Prime Minister.  And, above all, we are not going to get Brexit done by 31 January, a whopper that will be exposed within months and ought to severely damage Boris Johnson (but probably won’t).

It is really hard to pick a lowlight, because it has been a parade of lowlights.  But probably the lowest of the low moments came with the publication of the Conservative manifesto, which (on p.48) includes an overt threat to the judiciary and democracy dressed up in bland procedural language a 1920s European totalitarian would admire.  And yet, unforgivably, Boris Johnson has faced no serious questions about it.  This really is pathetic and horrible.

I’m struggling to think of a highlight.  I did enjoy the empty chairing of Boris in the Channel 4 climate debate, the steady drip of melting ice a strong reminder of the urgency of the need for decarbonisation and for politicians to make really difficult and unpopular decisions if we are going to get anywhere near net zero by 2050.  Speaking of the leaders’ debates, the big comms lesson was given every time Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon appeared.  One was so over-rehearsed she seemed inauthentic and trite; the other naturally engaging and right on top of her brief.  In fact Nicola Sturgeon is the big winner of this election, by virtue of being the only leader who was not entirely mediocre, meaningless or mendacious.  Grim stuff.