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.

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