“Why should I vote for you?”. It’s the biggest challenge you get as a politician campaigning for people’s votes. In over 40 years of elections, often as the candidate, I’ve never been at a loss for words.
This year, dozens of activists and Labour voters – and even some of my own colleagues in Parliament – have told me they don’t know what Labour stands for. Where Labour should have been setting out its vision for the country, as we emerge from the pandemic, there was a vacuum.
Hartlepool was a devastating bad result for Labour. A seat we have consistently held for 50 years has gone to the Conservatives and the Labour vote has halved since 2019. Hartlepool is not an isolated glitch. The early results indicate Labour losing council seats in Dudley in the Midlands, Harlow in the east of England and Sunderland in the north.
You cannot go into an election without any policy programme, without explaining what sort of society you want. You can’t send candidates out there naked without something to advocate. Labour members, activists and candidates were let down.
Labour has to be the party rooted in the communities it seeks to serve, which only comes from community organising. Labour needs to get back to that grassroots campaigning, but instead the party is closing down its Community Organising Unit and making dozens of staff redundant
With tens of thousands of members leaving in the last year, and many trade unions unwilling to be milked as cash cows while being sidelined, Labour has a financial crisis. The failure to engage and enthuse the party is costing Labour electorally and financially.
My only hope is that lessons are learned. From the official Labour spokespeople co-ordinated onto the media by the Leader’s Office I am not hopeful. Peter Mandelson blaming Jeremy Corbyn for the loss of Hartlepool was also as dishonest as it was desperate. Labour held Hartlepool twice with Jeremy as leader – in 2017 with over 50 per cent of the vote. Thursday’s result showed nearly half of Labour’s 2019 support had walked away, and no one has come back.
As he reflects over this weekend, Keir Starmer should recall what he said when we ran to become Labour leader last year. In that contest, Keir described the 2017 manifesto as his “foundational document”, issuing 10 pledges that summarised what Labour stands for. It is a depressing fact that 2017 is the only general election this century in which Labour has gained seats.
Keir Starmer promised to unite the party, and unless he does that now and urgently, Labour will continue to flatline. It will require reaching out, listening to voters and colleagues, and widening the pool of advice he receives.
In the mayoral elections, Labour’s mayors have set out their individual policy programmes and I suspect they will be rewarded for it. Andy Burnham in Manchester and Steve Rotheram in Liverpool showed real leadership in fighting for more resources for the North of England during the pandemic and are setting a new municipal agenda including public control of buses. Sadiq Khan has articulated the desire of Londoners for rent controls, quality transport, and evidence-based drugs policies. In West Yorkshire, where Tracy Brabin should become the country’s first woman metro mayor – she has set out her own clear agenda too.
The party nationally has only a slogan: we’re “under new management”. You can’t say that and then fail to spell out what that means in policy terms, to explain to people what sort of society you want to create. That vacuum is the issue that has to be addressed now.
Keir’s got to be given his chance – he shouldn’t be treated like Jeremy was, with constant undermining and coups – but he has to learn the lessons of this terrible campaign: and that is if you stand for nothing, the public won’t fall for anything.
Inews opinion 7 May 2021