The two Labour tribes preparing to go to war

Four candidates, in two camps, chasing a vote scattered in at least three directions. This could be messy

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

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.

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  • Dogsnob

    As evidenced in the three categories given here, Tory thinking has its blind spots too.

    It’s because I’m a left-behind, working class voter, and yet still aspirational, that I voted UKIP.

    • MrLouKnee

      Labours doomed, by the next election its only voters will be those who identify themselves as the metropolitan elite and immigarnts, its voter base will be limited to the islamic republic of Londonistan

      UKIP is the new party of the working class

  • misomiso

    Very tough for Labour.

    It may be the concensus of the media / journalistic class that Kendall, Umuna or Hunt would be better, but there is simply no way they can hold the North against UKIP if Labour go down that route.

    Better to go for Burnham and build slowly. Ye hes has problems on the NHS, but the NHS consistenly ranks as one of the top issues particularly for Northern voters, and as you said he WAS a Blairite so is not stupid.

    Kendall might be the exception and could hold the coalition together, but its unclear at the moment how well she could do.

    • Caractacus

      Burnham as leader would be hilarious.

      He will be absolutely slaughtered for his part in Mid Staffs.

      Umunna and Hunt are both more posh than Cameron, so that would also be hilarious.

      Liz Kendall is the only credible name, because she’s the only one the electorate haven’t heard of and therefore isn’t tainted.

      • Commenthead

        But really, is Liz Kendall seriously a Prime Minister? She seems nice enough, but not at all formidable. I can’t imagine her defeating a Tory monolith party starting with 331 seats, and the Tories themselves will have a new leader in 2020, which no one mentions. This will be a major factor all on its own.

  • John Carins

    The quality of the candidates is average. Add that to their allegiances and previous record then Labour has had it. The Tories have a great opportunity to see them off once and for all but they wont. The Tories will prefer to have a weakened Labour snapping at their heels rather than encourage the new opposition – UKIP. When it comes to the EU referendum the “in” Tories will want Labour’s support.

  • kathee

    I remember lying in my room when I was in high school and writing in a journal to my future husband. I’d write all sorts of notes and questions and things I’d wonder or ask this man when I eventually met him. I would wonderc where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about me too. It has always been such a strong desire in my heart to find a wonderful man to marry, someone who would love me and cherish me and appreciate me for the person I am. I always thought I would get married right out of college, just like my parents, so when that plan didn’t work out, I started to get discouraged. A school mate snatched my future husband away from my arms just because she had spiritual powers, all hope was lost to me before i came across the help doctor (prayerstosaverelationship@gmail.com
    ) who i confided in, i told him my long story and he helped me regain back my lover with his prayers which is now my husband today. if you have any problem email the help doctor (prayerstosaverelationship@gmail.com

  • Bobby Mac

    The country is barely more Conservative today than it was before the election. It is, however, significantly less Labour. This means that Labour can win the next election, which in turn will require a good leader AND policies and a narrative that appeal to more than the core vote. Since neither Tories nor Labour addressed the main problems facing the country in the recent election – lack of productivity growth, low wages, housing shortage, personal debt – the opportunity is there for a fresh and attractive approach. But if Labour adopts Miliband’s and Alexander’s ‘35%’ tactic, they’ll end up with 31% again – if they’re lucky. Kendall is the best bet, with Umunna as Shadow Chancellor.

  • Violin Sonata.

    As said elsewhere Dan Jarvis, would have been Labours only hope but even he
    represented the officer rather then the foot soldier a modest man though, empathy
    with the electorate and decent.
    In truth there is no one who can represent the people labour were created for as
    their party abandoned then years ago.
    And now with the rise of the SNP there is no hope and I must say what a sorry bunch
    are those who’ve put their names forward. Especially the despicable Andy Burnham
    And wife of Ed Balls.

    • Dr. Heath

      Three Flush Floaters, the pair of them.

  • Liberty

    The turnaround after 1992 was due to Blair, Mandelson, Campbell, New Labour and falling out of ERM; a confluence of talent for deception and events that is unlikely to happen again and is certainly not in evidence now. The Tories are very aware of what happened then and are now working at the Northern Powerhouse, being a non-ideological, practical, no-nonsense party of management; and Cameron’s decision not to seek a third term will mean a fresh leader for the third term to avoid the staleness factor after 10 years of Tory rule. They have every intention of renewing, reforming, refreshing every few years and appealing to all so that the electorate never tire of them. Good intentions that may not turn into facts.

  • Landphil

    Chuka or Liz, Chuka or Liz? Do you want mumps or measles? As for Tristram – what a great name for a Labour leader – needs to use his middle name, “Kevin”.

  • Julian

    There are opportunities for Labour in England if it can avoid unnecessarily irritating voters. In my home county of Devon, the local Labour vote dropped off a cliff in spite of the fact that my constituency is right next to Ben Bradshaw’s safe Labour seat in Exeter and has traditionally had a smallish, but consistent presence. The main reason for this? Labour’s infinitely smug Chris Leslie talked about tripling the cost of gun licences to “reduce the deficit” on the Andrew Neil show, which went down like a lead balloon in an area where every fourth household has firearms. This isn’t because we are privileged braying toffs who shoot (in what one supposes is Mr Leslie’s rather narrow world view) but because otherwise the foxes would literally take away your living. The story is only illustrative, but it does feel like the sixth formers have been in charge of the party for the past five years and that it is time for the grownups to make an appearance.

  • Bonzo

    “..left-behind working-class..”. Oh dear, James. Probably best not to ask Rod if you can borrow his pencil for a while.

  • Ahobz

    I think they should go for the one who wears most eyeliner

  • Commenthead

    I don’t think it’s possible to answer the “exam question” posed here. You can’t take on UKIP with another Blairite snake oil exercise. It might work a bit in the south, but even here I’m not sure that the formula which worked in 1997 will work now. Remember, New Labour caused a lot of disillusionment. In many ways it brought politics very low. I voted for it twice, but I would never do so again.

    The only way ahead might be for Labour to regress to the northern heartlands and be unashamedly a “Blue Labour” party of the working class northerner. For the metro-lefties, maybe another party is required; more intellectual, urban radical chic, probably more leftwing, very southern, all that. I wouldn’t vote for it in a million years but the Guardianistas and their London pals might.

    Either way, it’s 10 years of Tory rule at least, I reckon (thank God)

  • Bluesman_1

    House Labour
    Splintered is coming

  • Expanded by me is a Daily Mirror article with survival tips for the poor who will suffer hunger more and more now under even more extreme austerity cuts.


    Labour might widely share the tips so as to save lives for the next 5 years.

    Hope it helps people in dire straits. And helps people to abandon party politics and do things to help people now.

  • victor67

    “Nationalist minded voters”
    You really don’t get it James. What happened in Scotland had very little to do with nationalism and was far more about the Scottish people choosing an authentic left of centre party that was not corrupted by Westminster and put forward humane progressive policies. It was not rocket science. Also many socialists decided to lend their vote to the SNP this time as not to split the 45%. Those traditional Labour voters will not return anytime soon.

  • John Paul Rowe

    I’ve been around Labour people all my life, my dad was a civil service union official and pretty left wing. I was brought up in the NE of England where just about everyone is a Labour voter. I voted Labour in several other elections. But because I’m northern, proud of my country and industrial working class I get the feeling I’m disliked by this new breed of Labour Party elitists, the Guardian reading intelligentsia who in my opinion hate the likes of me and what I stand for. And while I still have a sense of community and social altruism I wont vote Labour until they rid themselves of the OxBridge educated PPE elite and the Hampstead/Islington/Notting Hill trendies who would do/did (circa 1997-2010) nothing whatsoever for the likes of me……

    • Sten vs Bren

      I suppose the difference between your Dad and you was that he was left wing enough not to go in to a funk about being patronised by people who went to posh schools and read the Guardian. That would seem to be a prerequisite for membership of the Labour movement.

  • Sten vs Bren

    “this will be the first contest held under the one member, one vote rules”

    No, it won’t; one member one vote was introduced in the early nineteen nineties by John Smith (incidentally, some years before it was introduced to the Conservative Party).

  • Sean L

    There are also nationalists, or at least patriots, south of the border. And if people in the north don’t vote Tory because Labour aren’t northern or working class enough, they’re voting Ukip. Rod Middle nailed it in his column.

  • Hegelman

    Cheer up! Even you must be getting sick of all this wailing.

    People were predicting the final doom of the Tories, too, in the early 2000s, after its repeated defeats.

    What happened?

    In UK politics since 1945, one party tends to dominate in any one decade.

    In the Forties it was Labour (even Churchill’s coalition regime was very leftwing). People like Doom Monger Dan Hodges went around howling that the Tories would never return to power.

    The Tories dominated the Fifties.

    Doom Monger Dan types said Labour would never return to power. Labour dominated the Sixties and the Seventies.

    Doom Monger Dan characters caterwauled that the Tories had no future. The Tories dominated the Eighties and the Nineties.

    Doom Monger Dan clones said Labour had better wind up since it was never coming back. Labour dominated the 2000s.

    Doom Monger Dannies whined that the Tories would just fade away. The Tories are dominating the present decade.

    Doom Monger Dan yells that Labour are finished. Labour will probably dominate the 2020s.

  • Hegelman

    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.”

    You don’t say so, boss!

    And should that apology be coupled with praise of the Thatcherites for unleashing the banking gangsters whose speculation led to the 2009 Crash?

    How very careful you Tories are with the economy!

  • Hegelman

    Let me offer another scenario.
    Freed to indulge all their worst instincts and most horrible ideas now they have a tiny majority, the Tories will quickly make themselves utterly hated.
    Labour wins by a landslide in 2020.
    On one condition: that Labour keeps its distance from Tory ideology. If it apes the Tories, as the economy unwinds due to Tory scrapping of regulation, people will not consider Labour an alternative simply because they will be espousing the same reckless ideology. Voters will drift away to new populist parties like UKIP or the Greens or the SNP.

  • Dominic Stockford

    “How to appeal to all three groups simultaneously is…”

    …impossible. Eventually such a plan will cause the implosion of whichever party tries it. Which is why a certain yellow party imploded at the recent election, and why another one (purple) which is trying the same thing is also threatening to implode dramatically now.