Time for Labour to get on the front foot

7 May 2021

Ahead of the Queen’s speech next week, and in the aftermath of “Super Thursday”, Jon McLeod, joining DRD as a Partner in July 2021, makes the case that Labour needs a response that finally sets pulses racing.

Getting on the front foot

‘Totemic’ will doubtless win prizes for overused adjective of the week in relation to Labour’s Hartlepool meltdown.

But the Party will not be able to allow itself time to pause as we swing into next week and the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday 11th May.

Ministers have been scratching around for substance – even though there are big issues like social care and decarbonisation (and a side note of these local elections is the return of the Greens) to address.

The expected list of Bills is not, shall we say, exactly sexy: Audit reform. Yet more changes to the planning system. State aid to industry. Regardless, the Tories will look to next week as an opportunity to press the reset button.

As the vaccine rollout continues at pace and some semblance of normal life returns, Johnson needs to use the Queen’s Speech as a vehicle to refocus the legislative agenda for a post-Brexit, post-pandemic nation – and as a chance to move beyond the allegations of sleaze that have plagued the party (but not, it seems, the polls) in recent weeks.

But it is not the legislation itself that will prove pivotal but the way in which Ministers will be able to stitch the package together with its narrative of ‘levelling up’, bringing investment – and Tory votes – to parts of (largely Northern, largely pro-Brexit) England not reached in decades.

Winning Back Votes

With all of its pragmatism and ideological looseness, the modern Conservative Party has done what all successful Parliamentary machines must do, which is to be agnostic about where you win. No heartlands. No north-south divides. No ‘walls’, red or otherwise.

Labour’s core geographies, meanwhile, are starting to look like burnt-out shells, even if there are early green shoots in Scotland. But the shift from Labour hegemony, to rejection, to Brexit, to the Conservatives has been brutal in parts of the predominantly white, working-class north and midlands.

The Conservatives will shortly face their own challenges over the risk of destruction of the cherished Union as nationalist voices in Edinburgh, Belfast and even Cardiff gain more traction. Say hello to the Former United Kingdom of England and Wales. Don’t try that acronym at home.

Meanwhile, Labour intellectuals and think tanks on both the left and the right are still spewing out tracts on how to ‘win back the working class vote’. But it may be that the working class is just not a thing anymore.

The challenge is how to win back any votes, anywhere.

At a Crossroads

It took John Smith and Neil Kinnock for Labour to pivot from its 1980s wilderness years to the election-winning machine that was Tony Blair’s New Labour.

It is a rich irony that the erstwhile Labour seat of Hartlepool was previously held by Peter Mandelson, the arch persuader who did much to convince the sceptical British public of the 1990s that Labour was electable once more.

The handbrake turn that is the attempted switch from Corbyn’s polytechnic socialism to Starmer’s lean towards pragmatism and the centre-ground cannot, it seems, deliver the same transformation at the polls for Labour in the 21st Century.

It’s going to take more – a lot more.

The Party is left asking the same questions as it was before super-Thursday proved not so super.

How do we win back working-class votes?

Where is Labour’s Heartland?

Have we got the right leader for the job?

Not visible to the public, the party is still locked in a left-right death grip. Its internal battles continue. After this week, there will be calls for a swing back to the left. For a new leader. Equally, there will be demands that Starmer’s leadership strengthens his frontbench, takes a much more aggressive stance in Opposition and steps forward with a much clearer offer to the British public.

In 1997, Tony Blair famously encapsulated the Party’s offer into five key pledges. How might they be translated into the politics of 2021?

Five Pledges…for 2021

In 1997, Tony Blair famously encapsulated the Party’s offer into five key pledges. How might they be translated into the politics of 2021?

“We will cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds by using money saved from the assisted places scheme”

The quality of children’s education has clearly been hammered by the pandemic, which will have deepened inequalities. The 2020 exams fiasco, and the loss of opportunity for young people is severe. Labour’s offer must be relevant to young people and their parents.

“We will introduce a fast-track punishment scheme for persistent young offenders by halving the time from arrest to sentencing”

Crime still blights communities and the justice system is grinding very slowly. Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime is an expression returning to common political parlance.

“We will cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100m saved from NHS red tape”

The pandemic has built up a huge backlog of untreated and undiagnosed patients. Their concerns will need to be addressed before 2024 in a similarly focused way.

“We will get 250,000 under-25 years-olds off benefit and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities”

Again, youth employment opportunities have been severely restricted during the crisis, and there is a question about whether the corporate sector should be paying more in taxes than is currently proposed.

“We will set tough rules for government spending and borrowing and ensure low inflation and strengthen the economy so that interest rates are as low as possible to make all families better off”

Needing to keep interest rates low seems quaint now, but the need for the Party to commit to being prudent on economic management was critical at the time. Now, with Rishi Sunak effectively blowing up Tory borrowing and spending caution during the pandemic, Labour could, arguably, feel freer to advocate investment for recovery than it might have done in 1997.

From New Labour to Zoom Labour

This is not to say that Labour’s programme should be New Labour Redux. But a clearer, more crystalline vision of what matters to voters in the here and now – and what doesn’t matter – is desperately needed. People used to talk about politics’ ‘retail offer’. With the collapse of the high street, maybe what Labour needs now is an online retail offer. Not so much ‘New Labour’ as ‘Zoom Labour’

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