How can Labour renew itself following the 2019 electoral defeat?

Cover of 'Labour and the Left in the 1980s'

The challenge for the party is enormous. To win power, it needs to gain at least 123 new seats. Electors in December 2019 did not believe Labour's programme was achievable.

We now have a new political landscape in which age rather than class is the major determinant of political alignment. Identity and culture matter as much as simple economic interests. The current government promises to be more interventionist. Rishi Sunak's budget in March 2020 (and his subsequent response to the coronavirus pandemic) adopted many measures that Labour would have put through, indicating a determination by Boris Johnson to unite the right and the centre through a 'one nation' approach. The age of austerity appears to be over (for now). In the new political landscape of the 2020s, Labour risks becoming irrelevant.

Yet the difference in average life expectancy between Somers Town and Primrose Hill in London (just one mile apart) is a decade. In Cambridge, an extremely affluent part of Britain, there are 4,000 children living below the poverty line (Cambridge Evening News, 12 November 2016). This suggests that the forms of inequality that the left seeks to reduce remain vital questions in the 2020s. A politics which is about creating better chances for the next generation (always the aim of the Labour Party) remains as important as ever. More dramatically (but realistically), we are in a battle to save the planet from the ravages of climate change whilst coronavirus is changing the entire political landscape and extending the boundaries of what might be politically possible. A politics of inter-connectedness, rather than individualism. has never been more necessary. How can we renew Labour?

Cover of 'March of the Moderates'

This project feeds off the historical work done by the Labour History Research Unit (LHRU) on two moments of renewal: the Neil Kinnock years which revived Labour when its future was in doubt although it failed to take the party into government (see Jonathan Davis and Rohan McWilliam (eds.), Labour and the Left in the 1980s) and the New Labour era which was far more successful in electoral terms (see Richard Carr, March of the Moderates).

The LHRU seeks not to offer policy proposals but to employ its knowledge of Labour's past to create a model of how parties renew themselves based on an understanding of how Labour renewal has come about previously. As historians, we do not believe models from the past can be directly applied but they can offer a way of thinking about political choices today. As much can be learned from failed forms of renewal as from the more successful forms (hence our interest in the Kinnock years). The discipline of History remains a useful one for thinking about the politics of the present and the future.

This report does not suggest that the solutions to Labour's current crisis are simple. It is unapologetically an argument for valuing nuance and complexity in politics. If it can contribute to a more thoughtful form of discussion as a new Labour leadership takes over, it will have achieved its aim.

What does Political Renewal Mean?

The simple answer is the winning of a general election but clearly it is about more than this. It is about a readiness to change the direction of the country and to create legislation that will stand the test of time. This requires the development of positive ideas and strategies but also an act of persuasion that makes voters feel a political party is capable not only of making the right decisions but also of governing well and implementing policy effectively. Also important is developing a popular base beyond party members, trade unions, the intelligentsia and local government. Renewal does not involve embracing Tory policies or austerity. It does mean thinking about how we can do progressive politics better. Can Labour recognise how society is changing and find ways of addressing this?

[Images: Labour and the Left in the 1980s by Jonathan Davis and Rohan McWilliam (eds.) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018); March of the Moderates: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and the Rebirth of Progressive Politics by Richard Carr (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019).]

Continue to next section: 'Preliminary Thoughts on Labour Renewal'