Labour’s Uphill Task

The Labour MP who has represented Edgbaston for 20 years also bids farewell with a warning to her party of tough times ahead

Gisela Stuart: The Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston is standing down

Elections are the moment when the views of voters crystallise. Just what makes them decide where to put the cross on the ballot paper is a complex process. It embraces everything from hardnosed self-interest to irrational prejudice, ideological commitment or just habit. I doubt there are many out there who have read even one party manifesto, never mind all of them. But we have confidence in the outcome.

Democracy is about giving shape to the will of the people. On one extreme of the spectrum is mob rule, the voice of the people unmediated by structures and checks and balances. On the other side is bureaucratic tyranny, once best described to me by a pupil visiting the House of Commons who asked, “Why do you keep talking about things, why don’t you just make decisions?”

And then there are people who share interests and values and come together to form groups. Some of them pursue just a single issue; others grow and become political parties. Their relative strength and support is measured by the election process. They meet in buildings like the Palace of Westminster. They follow rules by which decisions are made and at regular intervals the voters get a chance to say whether they’ve done a good or a bad job.

Come election time, if you are the opposition, you try to get the people who voted for you in the past to do so again and to persuade people who voted for another party or just stayed at home to vote for you. That’s what happened in a big way in 1997 and produced a landslide victory for Tony Blair. Labour lost support in subsequent elections and by 2010 we were out of government.

It sometimes seems as if the Labour Party has forgotten all of these simple but fundamental principles of democracy. No political party has a preordained right to exist. Its purpose is to reflect the values and principles which gave rise to its formation and adapt them to an ever-changing world. And when it fails to do that, it will no longer be part of the national conversation which shapes events.
In 2017 Labour faces the third election in opposition where it’s not just the policies which make it difficult to reach out to new voters, but where the leader is cited as a reason for voters abandoning the party.

It is tempting to conclude all would be well if only we changed the leader, but it would be a profoundly inadequate analysis. The choice of leader is a symptom, not the cause, of our problems.

The last all-night sitting of the first Blair government was the Bill introducing the minimum wage. In the face of dire warnings from the Tories that this would destroy jobs, we debated all night and into the following day, waved our order papers and won the vote with a large majority. But this single piece of legislation was part of a deeper insight which had shaped Labour’s policies. In 1997 one in five households didn’t have a single person in work. The world of work is about more than economic performance. It is also about social inclusion. To ensure that being in work would always be better than being out of work required a baseline income, i.e. a minimum wage. And for some families even that wasn’t sufficient, so rather than badging support as “benefits” we created working tax credits. The support was delivered through the wage packet and wasn’t a handout.

It is this kind of wider and deeper thinking about work and society to which Labour has to return if it wants to remain relevant. Things are changing: the rise of new business models like Uber, the spread of   zero-hours contracts, the problem of taxing the growing number of self-employed people or multinational companies when working patterns are changing so rapidly. The Labour Party arose out of the trades union movement, but neither party no unions will succeed in a world where goods, people and services flow across the globe with ever-increasing ease unless they can provide a coherent and thoughtful response that connects with both the public and this changing reality. Simply listing grievances and wishes is not a sufficient response.

The EU referendum was fought across party political lines. It has been easier for the Conservatives to bring those who voted to leave and to remain together again than it has been for Labour. While the party insists that it will now focus on getting the best deal possible out of the negotiations, articulating the policies is proving difficult.

After June 8, Brexit will still dominate the political agenda, but it will fall along party lines and a whole range of laws will either have to be entrenched in UK legislation or be rewritten. This requires a debate of national renewal where the Labour Party can and should take the lead.

No amount of talk about progressive alliances or electoral pacts can get around the fundamental challenge that Labour is a national party that aspires to be a party of government, and for that it has to be able to express its values and principles in a way which attracts sufficient support to win. We need to fit our analysis to the world we live in — to resist the temptation to take comfort in an outdated analysis in the hope that the world will change. We need to understand better what’s going on around us, what people want and what needs to be done.
We are going into this election at a time which was not of our choosing, facing an enormous uphill struggle. It won’t be easy and it won’t be comfortable.

If asked “Who should I vote for on June 8?”, my advice is simply that if you care for the things Labour has traditionally stood for and you have a Labour MP, vote Labour. The last thing you want is a government that’s not facing a significant opposition. Our system requires governments to be robustly challenged. But be in no doubt that the real job of national renewal and renewal of the Labour Party begins on June 9.

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