Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Some thoughts after the election aftermath: Labour

Any Labour supporter must be really hurting after what was a terrible general election. So what happens now?

Labour need to analyse what went wrong and try to elect a leader who can correct those faults, a process they singularly failed to do after their defeat in 2010. Sadly, the immediate aftermath of the election has seen many Labour supporters, including some past and current politicians, refuse to face up to the problems that  the party faces.

Choosing a new party leader will be made more difficult by the pull from the left and the more centrist segments of the party. If they are not careful it will become 'Brownites versus Blairites part three', although long after the major players have departed the scene. A new leader might be best looking for another route - a fourth way after Blair's third way. Some have even started calling it 'Now Labour'.

I have no particular favourite candidate for the leadership, and it is still early days. Initially the media seemed to be concentrating on ex-soldier Dan Jarvis, whose backstory is certainly compelling. However backstory does not of itself make a good party leader, and I have never heard him make a speech to judge his ability. He has also come out to say that he will not stand for personal reasons.

The timing of the leadership election is an issue. In 2010 Labour waited until the autumn conference to choose their leader; this gave the coalition months in which they could pull themselves together and set the agenda. For this reason many are calling for a snap election. This would favour the old guard, people such as Andy Burnham who stood in 2010. A later election would favour someone less well known within the party. It currently looks as though the latter argument has won, with a leadership election possibly being held in mid-September.

Ed Miliband was only elected because of the union vote (including one union who sent out ballot papers to members along with literature favouring him; a strange thing to do in a democratic election). The leadership selection process was altered last year after the Collins Review to a One Man, One Vote system, This will reduce the unions' influence over the election. However the new leader will still have to maintain good relations with the unions who donate massive sums to the party.

Once elected, the next Labour leader will have to decide what to do about Scotland. Their unprecedented (yes, that word again) rout of Scottish Labour has helped the Conservatives to a limited majority. But some of the SNP majorities over Labour are small, and Labour will be eyeing those constituencies covetously come 2020. Their problem is that Scotland is more left-wing than England. If the new leader moves Labour to the left then he risks alienating English voters; if he moves to the right he does the same for Scottish voters.

That is not to say the correct positioning is impossible: someone with the political skills of Blair could satisfy these seemingly different electorates (even if 'Now Labour' seems rather hackneyed). The problem is that I cannot see Blair Mk II anywhere on Labour's benches. However Blair was not exactly a household name before he was made Labour leader after John Smith's death in 1994, and yet he changed Labour forever.

The new leader needs to address the main reasons they lost: strategy. Miliband put in place a '35% strategy', which meant gaining 35% of the vote. Strangely, this would have been barely enough to win a majority; a seemingly modest ambition. As it happens, they failed in even that. In my view, the problem was that Labour espoused no true vision.

Most of Labour's campaign was worthy, but the disparate points were only connected by a vague hatred of the Conservatives. Whilst that was enough to fire up the Labour core vote, it did nothing to attract the general population. Sadly for Miliband, the core vote of both main parties is only about 30%. The new Labour leader needs to develop a vision for the country that embraces people outside their core vote. Blair managed this; Foot, Kinnock, Brown and Miliband did not.

There is also the need to sort out, and preferably widen, the party's finances. Currently they are too reliant on income from the unions, who are all too willing to use the influence their cash gives them. That union influence can have positive outcomes; however at times, such as when the unions essentially elected Miliband to the leadership, it can be positively malign.

Labour need an 8% swing to get an overall majority. Add in the boundary changes that the Conservatives are keen to push through, and it may be nearer 12%. This will be a difficult task: in 2010 Cameron got a 5% swing, whilst Blair got 10.3% in 1997. So the new leader may well need a shift larger than Blair achieved. For this reason, Labour's recovery may be a two-term task, and they may want to select a leader who can see them through that process.

The near-wipeout of Scottish Labour has also has ripped out much of the intellectual heart of the party. From Keir Hardie to Gordon Brown, much of Labour's political philosophy has come from Scotland. In this election they lost a large number of the party's deepest thinkers. That may hurt them more than is currently obvious.

Labour faces deep problems on all sides. Hopefully they can find a leader that will be able to solve them.

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