The Labour leadership contest was supposed to be a debate about the party’s future. Instead it has oscillated between petty personality politics and bickering. Nobody is addressing the question of how to win back lost voters.
The four candidates have barely mentioned the fact that Labour is not winning seats in the south of England, nor the huge challenge from Ukip in its heartlands in the north. Given that the party failed to win its majority in England, it is staggering that more attention hasn’t been paid to this at hustings and in speeches. The candidates make nebulous comments about the need to give Ukip voters ‘hope’, but that’s it. The south seems to have been forgotten.
This neglect by those pitching to run the party means that others are having to do the heavy lifting. Senior figures such as former cabinet ministers John Healey and John Denham are pressuring the party’s hierarchy to start addressing its weaknesses now when there is time, rather than when an election is approaching and everyone is starting to panic again. Their campaigns are designed to give practical help to whoever is elected leader, regardless of their preference for left-wing or centrist policies.
This week a group of 13 parliamentary candidates who failed to win their seats in the south wrote a letter to all the leadership and deputy leadership hopefuls. They complained that ‘too often the party has failed to reach out to southern voters’, even though nearly a third of its target seats at the next election will be in the south west, south east and east of England.
The candidates asked the leadership contenders to ensure that Labour developed a ‘strong and identifiable southern voice’ in the media (something that Andy Burnham, who wants to construct his shadow cabinet according to the range of regional accents available in the party, may disagree with) and allowed southern party members a say in policy development. They asked for more support in campaigns across the south — including in ‘unwinnable’ seats — so that the party builds up a presence.
With the honourable exception of south-west MP and deputy leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw, the party’s southern discomfort is mostly discussed by people who aren’t MPs: failed candidates and the former MP for Southampton Itchen, John Denham, who stood down in 2015. Labour failed to hold Denham’s seat, with the Tories beating Rowenna Davis into second place.
But for candidates like Davis, the challenge isn’t as straightforward as convincing those who voted Tory that Labour is a safe bet. Labour struggled to win seats in the south because its voters also turned to Ukip. All the leadership candidates have commissioned work on Ukip, even if they don’t like to talk about it at hustings.
Meanwhile John Healey is carrying out a review for the party’s Learning the Lessons Taskforce, which was set up in the weeks following the election defeat and will present its findings to the new leader in the autumn. Healey’s review will assess the extent of the Ukip threat, both in the election just gone and in five years’ time, through analysis of individual seats and discussions with candidates and organisers.
The Wentworth and Dearne MP, who was one of the first to warn his party’s high command about Ukip, points out that it damaged the Labour vote and took working class support in all regions of the country.
Farage led his party to second place in 44 Labour seats, and Ukip has been winning Labour council seats in the Midlands and the north for the past few years. ‘Ukip’s strategy is to try to put itself as the main challenger to Labour in the north, and Farage has been saying that for three years,’ says Healey. ‘I think the campaign chiefs regarded that as a diversionary tactic from Farage, thinking that his principal concern was Tory voters.’
He is most anxious that his party doesn’t make the same mistakes as it did in the general election: believing that Ukip was a problem for the Tories, or that it would run out of steam. After a tumultuous summer for Farage and his colleagues, it would be very easy for Labourites to go through the same cycle of disbelief and then panic over the next five years.
‘We’ve got little time to lose,’ says Healey. Many of his colleagues agree, not least because Ukip wants to fight in next May’s Welsh Assembly elections. Ian Warren, a forecaster hired by Labour in the run-up to the election to advise candidates on Ukip in their seats, is raring to go.
‘My approach would be to start now from the ground up and within wards and constituencies, rather than working for a review or report from central office,’ he says. ‘I can start now. I’ve got the data and the analysis to start now, and they could have started now.’
But if the party spends a year wondering what to do about Ukip, it will find those elections very hard to fight. ‘Part of the problem with Ukip voters is that they do not trust us,’ says Rowenna Davis. ‘And they’re not going to trust us if we just turn up when there’s an election and demand their vote.’
The party doesn’t have time for a protracted ‘Lessons Taskforce’, especially if, as many suspect, that taskforce produces findings that are destined for the same fate as all the lengthy reports and policy reviews that Ed Miliband commissioned as leader and then ignored.
‘These reviews are all pointless anyway: they’ll produce general conclusions that mean nothing on the ground,’ says a party insider. ‘The surprise is that it’s taking them so long to reach conclusions many of us reached years ago.’
Labour risks conforming to the pattern of learning little from its election mistakes while prattling merrily away about the importance of learning lessons. Such prattling is a luxury the party cannot afford.
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