Friday, 29 May 2015

Left or right: leadership election leaves Labour at the crossroads - My Catholic Universe column


I am not normally one drawn to hyperbole but every so often it is a remarkably useful device and so, on this one occasion, I will resort to using it. I am sure you will see why later.
The Labour Party is on the brink of civil war.
Now obviously I’m not talking about a ‘pick up thy musket’ pikes and staffs civil war which will lead to significant bloodshed. I am however talking about an ideological conflict for the heart of the party which, without a great deal of craftsmanship and diplomacy, could either lead to the departure of thousands of members and potentially a whole trade union movement or it could see Labour languishing as no more than an opposition for a generation, maybe more.
There is little doubt that the general election result that millions of viewers watched roll in on their television screens on May 9th was epochal for Labour. Let us make no bones about it a Conservative majority should have been out of the question long, long before that day.
Evidence on the doorstep, in the polls and even simply in conversations in the pub, at work or even at church suggested all Labour had to do was take a comparatively small number of votes off a highly unpopular incumbent government.
Whilst it is true that the economy has started to improve many people said they didn’t feel better off or more secure in their jobs. To vast numbers Mr Cameron may have been thought competent, but certainly not likeable. The Conservatives had failed clearly if not spectacularly on their key promises, including but certainly not limited to deficit reduction and immigration. The Conservatives should have been there for the taking.
But Labour failed.
We didn’t miss out narrowly, we failed miserably.
To see just how much we failed look no further than the constituency of North Warwickshire, Labour’s number one target seat. Labour lost North Warwickshire in 2010 to the Tories by just 54 votes. Literally all Labour had to do was convert a coach load of Conservative voters.
The reality in 2015 was that Dan Byles, the one term Conservative MP, stood down. Labour didn’t even have an incumbency factor to tackle.
Yet on 8th May, on a virtually identical turnout to 2010 Labour lost nearly two thousand votes and the Conservatives increased their majority to just short of three thousand.
Labour has some serious questions to ask of itself.
Of course in the face of such a drubbing Ed Miliband was right to resign straight away and leave the post mortem for other voices, and that is where Labour’s problems are only just starting.
Whilst Labour are still trying to figure out what went wrong a leadership circus is, for the next 4 months, setting up camp seeking to give soundbite answers to a membership base who in some quarters are not willing to accept the reality of such a defeat.
Many quarters of the Labour Party, particularly on line, feel that the reason Ed Miliband lost was that Labour didn’t go far enough. They feel that a full on anti-austerity party is what the electorate are crying out for, there should be more nationalisation and taxing of the rich. That is what, in some quarters, Labour party activists believe. Some Labour Party members honestly believe that there was nothing wrong with Ed Miliband’s offer and that we were defeated by Rupert Murdoch and ‘the right wing press’.
I have written more than once in these pages about the horrible negative campaigning used by elements of the Conservative Party but ultimately this wasn’t an election which was stolen from Labour but one which we lost fair and square at the will of the British people.
As I have spoken with people since the election it is clear Labour failed to connect. Labour has long espoused that it is the party of working people and yet time and time again I have been told by ordinary folk with ordinary jobs that Labour ‘said nothing to me’.
Whilst Labour were (rightly) defending the weakest in society from the bedroom tax and (wrongly) punishing the richest with higher tax rates and ill-thought through property levies the Conservatives were talking to families who go out every day to work to provide themselves with a better life.
I spoke with one lady a couple of days after the election who said to me ‘I wanted to vote for compassion, I had to vote for capability’.
Now we have to decide which route Labour will take. Do we want a leader who will follow a more pronounced route of establishment bashing potentially working at the behest of one or two trade union barons? Or do we want a leader more attuned to the centrist, middle-way view once taken by the likes of Tony Blair?
It is fair to say both options have significant numbers of detractors in the party and both options will in all likelihood leave their fair share of casualties.
At the time of me writing this column there are 4 potential candidates for leadership of the Labour Party; Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh. It is absolutely possible, if rumours are to be believed, that by the time you read this Ms Creagh will have dropped out of the race due to a lack of support from MP’s.
As an aside, and regardless of my views as to suitability for leadership, it is great to see that both Mr Burnham and Ms Creagh are both products of Catholic state schools.
Every candidate to a greater or lesser extent is now talking of the need to connect with ‘aspirational’ voters and ‘wealth-creators’, those important parts of the electorate who want a fair safety net for the poorest in our society but who just as importantly want security and opportunity for their families too. Arguably, the same type of people who voted for ‘New Labour’ back in 1997, arguably the new ‘working class’.
Alarm bells are ringing in the more left wing corners of the party that such an ideologically impure approach will signal the return of ‘Blairism’ and prophesying doom for our traditional socialist, trade unionist history.
Labour party members are going to have a very difficult choice in the coming months, a choice of left or centrist, a choice of candidates who have previously held ministerial office and are therefore tarnished by them against those with less experience.
For me at least as someone from the third way tradition of the Labour Party I am deeply concerned about a lack of choice and a lack of quality in the candidates coming forward. I want to see more debate and, yes, more candidates.
I am yet to be fully convinced but right now I cannot see Labour’s next election winning Prime Minister in this line-up of potential leaders.
I very much hope I am wrong but short of someone taking over in a caretaker capacity to allow other potential leaders to come through I very much fear many more columns like this will be written in May of 2020.

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