Making Labour Renewal Happen: Broad strategies and approaches

Neil Kinnock conceding the 1992 General Election

Corbyn or Blair? Labour needs to recognise these are NOT the only choices. Neither Corbyn nor Blair was a typical Labour politician. A glance through Labour's past shows there are a wide range of political positions within the party. Looking at the 1980s, Neil Kinnock's leadership (examined in Labour and the Left in the 1980s) exemplified an attempt to modernise the party whilst retaining its connections with the plight of workers suffering from austerity. In many ways, Kinnock saved the party when it could have been replaced by the Liberal-SDP alliance.

Other models are provided by the robust social democracy of Roy Hattersley and Robin Cook, Fabian socialism, ethical (or Christian) socialism, the feminism of Harriet Harman, the libertarian radicalism of Michael Foot, the non-doctrinaire approach of Denis Healey, the focus on constitutional reform, decentralisation and democracy embodied by Charter 88. When he launched the Labour History Research Unit, the historian Kenneth O. Morgan pointed to Arthur Henderson, Herbert Morrison and Jim Callaghan as perhaps the most characteristic of Labour's politicians.

This is not to argue that we should simply revive any of the approaches of these people which mainly made sense in their time. Rather, we should be aware of the variety of progressive positions that have existed on the left and be ready to carve out new ones. Viewing Labour politics through the prism of Corbynism or Blairism is unhelpful.

Engagement with Society as it is - not as the left wants it to be. We cannot have the 'no compromise with the electorate' approach of the early 1980s and the period 2015-19 (though Labour needs to challenge and provoke). Labour needs to prioritise the issues that most voters care about: well paid jobs, fair rates of taxation, crime-free neighbourhoods, quality education and transport, access to high quality health care free at the point of delivery.

Corbyn's Labour was premised on a country that did not quite exist; one eager to rekindle the spirit of 1945 and to replace neo-liberalism (never quite defined) with something else (not defined at all). The party fails when it succumbs to its own forms of nostalgia as we saw in the 1980s. Michel Foot and Neil Kinnock, for example, peppered their speeches with references to Nye Bevan which simply failed to resonate. It is difficult to make modernisation credible when Labour seems too in love with the achievements of the Attlee Government.

Clement Atlee

Labour's moments of success come when it seems to embrace a positive vision of the future as was the case in 1945 ('Let us Face the Future'),1964 and 1997. Wilson and Blair both in different ways appeared comfortable with the nature of Britain as they found it. Optimism and an appreciation of British society (together with a desire to make it even better) is crucial. Sourness about inequality (however justified) is not that attractive.

Reconnecting is thus vital. One characteristic of the rise of New Labour was the use of the focus group. The argument against focus groups is that they are responsible for introducing a robotic blandness into politics as politicians employ soundbites to target particular sets of voters. The reality is that no successful form of mass politics can afford to ignore larger trends in popular thought - even if it needs to challenge them from time to time. From this point of view, the key figures in Labour renewal in the 1990s were pollsters such as the late Philip Gould and Deborah Mattinson. The key New Labour book was Philip Gould's The Unfinished Revolution (written in 1998 but best read in the revised 2011 edition) and is still worth consulting. Gould pushed New Labour to connect with aspirational voters across the system. People who wanted to create businesses or generate economic growth needed to feel Labour was on their side. The downside with the Gould approach is that it had too little to say to those who were not aspirational (see the point about aspiration below). This was the great New Labour weakness.

Despite its electoral failure, the 1980s provide a model for reviving the party. The LHRU shows (in Labour and the Left in the 1980s) that Labour enjoyed renewal in the Thatcher years through its championing of social change (feminism, anti-racism, the rights of gays and lesbians). This showed it to be not only on the right side of history but also helped build a coalition. It thus won the social argument (as opposed to the economic argument) and has shaped modern Britain. Though hesitant at times, Labour spoke for a society that opposed discrimination at a time when Margaret Thatcher's were pushing through the crude anti-gay Section 28. Ken Livingstone's GLC was, as Peter Tatchell argues (in Labour and the Left in the 1980s), an 'exhilarating experiment in local democracy' that attempted to address lack of opportunity based on gender, race and sexuality in ways that now seem standard but at the time were controversial. It showed how a new kind of society was emerging. The common sense of our times is a hostility to discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation or disability. We argue that the final victory of the 1980s left was a Conservative government introducing gay marriage.

Labour must always embody the concerns of the future even if it risks temporary unpopularity (as it did in the 1980s). Given the greater ethnic diversity of younger people and their environmental awareness as well as increasing numbers of people who are gender fluid, Labour must make sure that it carries the future with it. Inclusivity is absolutely key to building an electoral coalition. Labour stands for the essential dignity of all people. This is what engaging with society as it actually is means.

Labour can only win through a coalition of the left AND the centre. Routine distrust between left and centre has always been part of Labour's history. It is, however, usually unproductive. The late Jo Cox had it right in her maiden speech as an MP: 'we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us'. This needs to be the foundation of Labour's renewal. It does not mean abandoning principles but it does mean acknowledging that the task of working together can be difficult (and requires far more than a few slogans about party unity). Labour has to be a broad church or it will fail and that means treating different positions within the party with respect and without recourse to reductive slogans. Corbyn's Labour retained more New Labour assumptions that it let on (for example, on not taxing the middle classes). Many of New Labour's achievements were in line with much of what had gone before (for example, the minimum wage, Scottish devolution or additional investment in the NHS). We should celebrate this continuity and not disguise it.

Photograph taken at the birthday memorial for Jo Cox, MP, at London's Trafalgar Square

Terms like the 'left' and the 'centre' are complex and obscure as much as they reveal. Too often they have been used as terms of abuse rather than as ways to understand political allegiance in a serious way. Terms like the 'political centre' and 'centrism' are particularly problematic as they refer to a lot of different things. The centrism of Roy Jenkins in the 1980s was different to that of Nick Clegg in the 2010s.

The centre has not fared well in the 2010s as it struggled with the question: how does one create social democracy when there is no money? Both the left and the right have connived in saying that the 'centre' has thus collapsed. Centrist parties and their approaches have been in crisis all over the globe since the financial crash of 2008 (though the Obama administration broadly qualifies as 'centrist' and Macron in France has shown that the centre can succeed in particular electoral circumstances). In any event, large amounts of the electorate still count as centrist insofar as they do not identify with the extremes of left and right. Attacks by the left on 'centrism' repel the very voters they need to attract (see the above point: 'Engagement with Society as it is - not as the left wants it to be'). Labour renewed itself in the 1990s when it was able to attract voters on the left and the centre. The combination of Tony Blair (on the right) with John Prescott (on the left) as his deputy embodied this.

Barack Obama at the Kohl Center, 2008

It also follows (and will be even more true in 2024) that Labour has to win the votes of people who have voted Conservative. This requires some tact, understanding and respect for people who have voted that way. Abuse of Tory evils is not always the best way to win over such voters. Tony Blair's appeal in 1997, 2001 and 2005 was famously to 'Middle England', respecting the previous decisions of Tory voters and winning them over. Blair understood why people vote Conservative. Labour in the 2020s has to do the same, not least by welcoming back Labour supporters who voted Tory in 2019.

Credibility. Political principle is never enough; nor is point scoring against the government of the day. Renewal comes about because the shadow Front Bench persuades electors that its members are capable of going into government and running the state and the Westminster machine effectively. This is difficult for oppositions to do, especially when they lack experienced former ministers on their shadow front bench. Blair in 1997 managed it. This was partly because he presented himself as more competent than John Major whose government by 1997 was exhausted. His record of transforming Labour in opposition created a narrative about what Labour in power might achieve. The way Labour conducts itself in the early 2020s will determine whether it can regain power in 2024.

Top Down/Bottom Up. Political renewal means renewal of the party at large. Renewal can never lose sight of the fact that (in the words of Harold Wilson) Labour is a 'moral crusade or it is nothing'. A renewed Labour Party will take the form of being the institution that can be relied upon to build community. Here we can learn from the 1980s where movements (even those that did not succeed in the short term) built up a powerful counterweight to the Conservatives: these included movements against government cuts, support for striking miners, protests against Section 28 and the closure of the GLC. The left always has worked most effectively through the development of networks that enhance solidarity. The best part of Momentum was the way it understood that Labour members needed to be the people who run food banks (whilst trying to create a nation where food banks are unnecessary), campaign to save local libraries, champion effective childcare as a right, staff the Citizens Advice Bureau, scrutinise council planning applications. Cambridge Commons is now active developing equality projects in its local area. In the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Labour needs to build civil society with its members making sure elderly people are assisted (for example, doing their shopping for them so that they do not have to go out and thus risk exposure to infection). Some of this is happening as I write: hope in a dark time.

Renewal will also be a matter of Labour proving effective in local government, showing that it can deliver (or at least oversee) services that enhance the quality of life. Figures such as Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester are therefore crucial to moving forward.

Leadership. Rightly or wrongly, the personality and character of the leader is important (and we should note historian Martin Pugh's argument in Speak for Britain! that Labour has a history of often getting the wrong leader). The most effective leader is able to speak both to party members but (more importantly) to the country. If one looks at the most effective progressive communicators in Britain (Wilson, Blair) or the US (FDR, Kennedy, Clinton, Obama), they have had the ability to take voters on a political journey drawing them along to desirable political goals. Corbyn and Miliband failed because, too often, they seemed to be merely having a conversation with Labour members.

Labour needs to consider what to do if it finds itself saddled with a leader who the general public will simply not accept as Prime Minister. This was arguably the case with Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. A leader needs time to prove him or herself. No leader should resign after a few bad polls. Nevertheless, a failing leader damages the party at large. MPs and the party at large should be ready to bring down such a leader.

Character. This is not much discussed but the personalities of Labour activists and supporters really matter. Many activists do not register that what they see as passion for the right causes can be regarded as finger-wagging, virtue-signalling by others. The Achilles heel of the left is that it is made up of figures who believe they know what is best for other people. They should not be surprised to discover some find this a bit irritating (see David Swift's A Left for Itself).

This has always been a thread in the history of the left. Early in the twentieth century, trade unionist Ben Tillett once complained ‘If the Labour Party could select a King, he would be a Temperance crank, a Nonconformist charlatan…an anti-sport, an anti-jollity advocate…as well as a general wet blanket’. George Orwell had the same criticism of left-wing puritanism. Tony Crosland in 1956 registered the need for a more joyous approach: 'Total abstinence and a good filing system are not now the right signposts to the Socialist Utopia'.

There was a moment at the end of the 1980s when the left changed gear and became rather less overtly censorious of other people's behaviour. A small but telling example would be the role of alternative comedians in the 1980s who showed that the left needed to have a sense of humour if it was to persuade. A lot of their humour was directed at the self-importance of the left. Activists should live their politics in a joyful way and recognise that one thing that puts people off the left (especially working-class people) is the feeling that politically correct people are looking down their noses at them and seeking to police their behaviour. In the 21st Century, this particularly means the character of left activists online is important. Activists are ambassadors for their party.

This is going to have to be addressed urgently as Labour members and voters are increasingly middle-class graduates. Despite having the best of motives, they are living in a different mental world from many working-class voters, who often care deeply about national identity, the monarchy and the armed services. Labour activists backed Remain not so much because they loved the European Union as an institution but because they are cosmopolitan and find excessive pride in Britishness a bit ridiculous. This means they are having a different kind of conversation from that of the people Labour seeks to represent. The left will be shocked to find polling evidence which suggests that working people do not automatically hate the rich, which may explain why Labour's 'For the Many, Not the Few' approach in 2019 did not hit home (see The Guardian, 17 February 2020, p. 9, and also Sonia Sodha in The Guardian, 16 February 2020). A Labour Party that is living in a different mental world from poorer people cannot be renewed. This is not an argument for pandering to populism or prejudice. It does, however, mean that Labour needs to respect the complex lives and choices of poorer people.

Betrayal. One of the problems that frustrates political discussion on the left is the allegation of betrayal. Labour has a history of denouncing its leaders as traitors from Ramsay MacDonald onwards. It is difficult to see how it has gained much politically from this. Any attempt to rework policy or think anew can be construed as treachery against the socialist ideals on which Labour is founded. Whilst critical discussion is the essence of political life, the use of insult and charges of betrayal can be stifling and prevent the emergence of new ideas. Apart from racists (including anti-semites), we should not be too keen to expel people. Renewal should start from the position that there are no enemies in the Labour Party.

Martin Farr rightly argues in Labour and the Left in the 1980s that 'Labour in opposition tends to be defined by its reaction to Labour in power' (p. 44). The party swung left in the early 1970s. After the 1979 defeat, Jim Callaghan was often despised by activists in the 1980s just as much as Blair would be thirty years later (even the Attlee government did not enjoy its sky-high reputation until later on). Disowning Labour's past (including Blair's New Labour) does not promote renewal; it merely alienates activists from potential voters. It is difficult to get people to vote for you if you don't rate what your own party has done in government.

Selling Policy. There is nothing wrong with having radical policies. Parties of the left are radical by their very nature. But how to sell them politically? Contrast the 1997 campaign which Blair fought with a broad set of themes and his modest five point pledge-card with the 2019 manifesto which was, in the words of Keir Starmer, 'overloaded'. The New Labour approach was to under-promise and over-deliver. This gave it credibility in what is a frequently conservative political culture.

Kinnock's Labour Party in the 1980s provides models. Renewal came from a more professional approach to political communications that, for example, produced Labour's victory in the 1986 Fulham by-election. Labour won with a community-based candidate, Nick Raynsford, who had excellent progressive credentials through his work with the homeless but was light years away from Scargill and Militant. Although Labour did not win the 1987 general election, the polish of its campaign upset Westminster assumptions about Labour ineptitude. At its worst, the spin doctor approach to politics reduced it to slogans and soundbites; at its best, it changed perceptions of the party and re-introduced it to potential voters.

Media/False Consciousness. The onslaught by the press on the 2019 Labour Party was devastating-but, historically, it was not unprecedented. Michael Foot and Ed Miliband were routinely trashed. Corbyn was able to get 40% of the vote in 2017 despite intense press criticism. Labour naturally wants to initiate a discussion about press ownership although the press is no longer as important as it was because of the internet. Blaming the media is always the soft option for the left. It is the equivalent of politicians saying that there was nothing wrong with their policies-just the presentation of them.

Another problem with blaming the media is that it contains the patronising assumption that the people are forever in a state of false consciousness. Reconnecting with voters means paying them the respect that they can think for themselves. This was a feature of Labour in the 1990s. Talk about the masses being duped by the media gets Labour nowhere.

Continue to next section: 'Making Labour Renewal Happen: Policy options in the light of Labour's history'