The Labour party is in a worse position today than after its defeat in 1992. Then, the electorate sent Labour a clear and simple message: move to the centre, don’t say you’ll put taxes up and select a more prime ministerial leader. This time, the voters have sent the party a series of messages, several of which are contradictory. The reasons Labour failed to win Swindon South are very different from why it lost Morley and Outwood and the reasons for that defeat are different again in Scotland, where almost all seats fell to the nationalists.
Labour needs to win back three types of voters: aspirational ones who backed the Tories, left-behind working-class voters who went Ukip in England and SNP in Scotland, and nationalist-minded voters north of the border. How to appeal to all three groups simultaneously is, as one shadow cabinet member put it, ‘the exam question’ facing the Labour leadership candidates.
It would be a mistake for Labour to allow the Scottish question to dominate the selection of its next leader. There is relatively little that a Westminster figurehead can do to overturn the SNP’s new dominance of Labour’s traditional Scottish heartlands. That job must be done in Scotland by Scots and will take time. This means that the new Labour leader has to be capable of winning 320-odd seats in England and Wales alone, and that means taking places such as Worcester and Crawley from the Tories.
This Labour leadership contest is hard to predict — not just because the party is still traumatised by defeat. One MP told me: ‘The level of delusion in the parliamentary Labour party is unbelievable.’ It will also be because this will be the first contest held under the one member, one vote rules. The backing of MPs and trade union bosses now matters far less.
Two fault lines can already been seen running through the contest, the result of which will be announced on 12 September. These can crudely be summarised as Southern Labour vs Northern Labour and New Generation vs Old Guard. On each side of these divides stand two candidates: Chuka Umunna and Liz Kendall are the contestants from the 2010 intake. They are both what you might call Southern Labour. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, in contrast, are members of the Old Guard. They were both Cabinet ministers in the last Labour government and have northern seats.
Umunna and Kendall have declared that they’re running. In their pitches they have made much of the need for Labour to say more to the middle classes, to have a message for aspirational Britain. This is no surprise. They both bridled at the negativity of the Labour message under Ed Miliband. Umunna desperately tried to repair the damage that his leader’s rhetoric was doing to the party’s relationship with business, while Kendall infamously warned that Labour couldn’t afford to sound like ‘the moaning man in the pub’.
Burnham isn’t exactly the moaning man in the pub. Years ago, he was a smart Blairite junior officer; The Spectator named him minister to watch in 2006. But now all he does is shout about the Tories and the threat they pose to the National Health Service. Despite an almost total lack of evidence, he has spent the past few years warning that the Tories want to privatise the NHS.
There is no sign, either, that he has an understanding of the political economy beyond traditional leftist nostrums. In the words of one Labour figure, he is a ‘prettier Ed Miliband’. If the Labour party elected him as leader it would be relying on the Tories losing the next election, rather than on Labour winning it. He is weak on his supposed specialist subject: he was a health minister during the Mid Staffs scandal. Cooper is a more impressive politician. Yet the reformist wing of the party fears that if she became leader she would focus almost entirely on winning back the working-class voters which Labour lost to Ukip. Cooper’s emphasis would be understandable, given the situation in her part of the world, Yorkshire. The MP in her next-door seat, her husband Ed Balls, lost — in large part — because working-class voters went Ukip. But Ukip eating into Labour’s support is a less pressing problem for the party than its failure to stop centre-ground voters backing the Tories.
Tristram Hunt, the cerebral shadow education secretary, is also expected to run and could come up with a surprise answer to Labour’s problems.
There are two main lessons for Labour to learn from Miliband’s defeat. The first is that the party has to admit its mistakes. His insistence that the last Labour government didn’t spend too much confirmed people’s worst fears about the party, that they couldn’t trust it with their money. The idea that Labour can’t be responsible stewards of the public purse will not go away unless it is addressed directly.
Its new leader needs to make it clear that the last Labour government overspent and that this would not be repeated. This will be far easier for someone such as Umunna or Kendall, who weren’t in parliament when these mistakes were made.
The second is that any strategy that doesn’t involve trying to win votes off the Tories isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. One influential Labour figure bemoaned how the party believed the myth that because the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Tories, it could win simply by vacuuming up Lib Dem votes and not taking any off its main rivals. Just how mistaken this approach was became clear on election night when the big winners from the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats were the Tories, who gobbled up 25 of their coalition partners’ seats.
The most important task for Labour is winning votes and seats from the Tories. It is clear that Umunna and Kendall are better suited to that than Cooper and Burnham. They are less tribal politicians who understand that Labour has to reach beyond its traditional base. There are those who argue that these candidates won’t play in the north, a charge levelled against Umunna with particular force. But as one of his supporters said: ‘People who vote Tory in the north aren’t doing so because we aren’t northern and working-class enough.’
That the 1997 landslide followed Labour’s defeat in 1992 is a reminder of how quickly the pendulum can swing. But it only does this if a party chooses to appeal to swing voters rather than talk to itself about the evils of the other side.