At 3am on 24th February, Labour suffered another blow. Copeland had fallen to the Conservatives, overturning a thin Labour majority in a long-held marginal. Of the six by-elections in Labour seats since 2015, Labour had lost the sixth, scoring the first gain by a governing party in a by-election since 1982. Six months ago Labour could argue its record in by-elections since the 2015 general election was very good, having won four out of four; now the party’s opponents can point to a defeat without precedent in recent decades.
It seems likely that factors such as Brexit, Labour’s changing stances on nuclear power and the perceived shambles of the Labour Party contributed significantly to a Tory win. Down in Stoke, Labour had seen off UKIP, effectively putting to bed the notion that the populist right could win big in the Midlands and the North. But waking up with one fewer Labour MP is a testament to Labour’s failure to turn around its electoral defeat in 2015.
Hopes that Corbyn’s Labour could turn out large numbers of apathetic voters, capture the votes of Greens, UKIP backers and Lib Dems and rebuild Labour’s crumbling electoral coalition look increasingly shaky.
The caveat is that had Owen Smith won last summer’s leadership contest, his backing for a second referendum might have lost Labour both of the by-elections. Despite this it is clear that Labour needs to overhaul its strategy. One approach would be to simply jettison the policy changes in the party since 2015, or even the changes since 2010, which may have been what David Miliband was implying when he stated that Labour can achieve “more radical and substantive change through a different set of positions”.
We could axe our aspiration of bringing Britain’s rail networks back into public ownership, even though it is widely popular across the country and among Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP voters. We could reverse our backing for a statutory living wage, even though some 60% of voters (and almost half of Tory voters) back us on the policy. We could throw away commitments we have made on council housing, rent controls, NHS funding and privatisation, taxing the wealthy and drastically reforming the energy markets, even though all of these positions are favoured by large numbers of voters. But I have yet to see evidence that this agenda has weakened the party across the country.
Instead we will have to look for answers elsewhere. YouGov polling from last autumn instead suggests that Labour’s decline stems from the perceived weakness of Corbyn’s leadership, the money spent by New Labour in government, immigration and fears that Labour “wouldn’t keep Britain safe”. None of this is easy reading for Labour members such as myself. I don’t believe New Labour’s spending caused the recession or that Corbyn is a weak leader. Instead I feel he has shown immense backbone and principle. Nor do I believe Labour’s positions are worse for our national security, than the neo-conservative approach of the Tory Party, but instead the opposite.
In research from last summer YouGov found that 29% of voters who had recently abandoned Labour had done so directly because of Corbyn’s leadership, 18% because Labour are ‘a shambles’ and 10% because of infighting in the party. Unity is therefore part of the solution, something which we didn’t see over Brexit and which we rarely saw in 2015 and 2016, but unity alone will not lead to a meaningful recovery for Labour.
Nor will waiting for Theresa May to make a mess of Brexit guarantee a recovery. Instead it might be time for an unprecedented overhaul of Labour’s messaging, to put forward a more coherent message on Brexit which resonates, and to spend the next few months reaching out to the voters Labour has been losing. This means Labour needs to spend the immediate future fighting to win back the support of working class voters, older voters and Remain supporters.
On Europe, Labour must put the Article 50 debacle behind us and seek to fight for the very best aspects of EU membership. Corbyn and Keir Starmer could look at pledging considerably stronger workers rights now that we are out of the EU, focusing on offering sovereignty for Eurosceptics and workers’ protections for those concerned about Brexit. We have already seen good ideas and a decent message on jobs and investment from the leadership, particularly since the summer when Corbyn pledged to “create a million good quality jobs across our regions and nations and guarantee a decent job for all”, utilising a National Investment Bank and a wider industrial strategy. Now it is time to take to the airwaves and relentlessly argue that Labour will revive manufacturing and establish full employment in every community. This can also be used to defeat any Conservative attempts to argue Labour is the party of welfare or unemployment. For older voters the challenge may be even harder. We could start by examining how the left can alleviate fears about national security and crime, and continue to refine our messaging on social care and pensions.
We need clearer advancement of the popular policies, particularly those Labour did not focus on prior to the 2015 election — such as democratisation of the House of Lords, our living wage pledge, significant job creation and a left agenda on housing — which highlights the number of social homes a Labour government would commit to building. These need to be put forward in terms that are far from abstract, that highlight Tory failure and that emphasise their use for improving people’s day to day lives. Too few people will have heard Labour argue for an elected House of Lords since 2015, yet Populus found that 70% of voters want a ‘largely elected’ upper chamber.
Almost everyday we need Corbyn or a member of the Shadow Cabinet to be saying in the broadcast media, that the next Labour government will build 500,000 new social homes and that Labour is the only party prioritising the housing crisis. Too frequently our pledges and policies are not being highlighted in the debate, and unless this changes the party will fail to cut through.
There needs to be a nearly constant stream of new policy proposals, with popular appeal both at the Labour grassroots and across the country. We need ideas which fulfil Labour’s radical aspirations on the economy and the public desire for equitable economic reforms. Zoe Williams highlights for instance the option of a land value tax, which was originally floated by Corbyn back in 2015. A concrete proposal on a wealth tax, aimed at only the richest 1% or 2% of households could also fit in with the aim of a radical agenda for the Labour Party, popular in the country at large. And we can find some consolation in the fact that half the electorate support the principle of a wealth tax, a number which may rise if voters were offered a wealth tax on only the very richest. This would work especially well if the revenue went exclusively to the NHS, social care or on industrial development.
On immigration we need a solution which is not about numbers, migrant bashing or choosing migrants on the basis of ‘quality’. A defence of migration should be combined with a much larger migrant impact fund than has currently been proposed and a serious effort to address the skills gap, by investing in training and education. What counts here isn’t necessarily the policies but how often they are spoken about and whether they are spoken about with enthusiasm by Corbyn and the Shadow Cabinet.
Together it is likely that making some of these changes, or all of them, will not be enough to turn the party around. Boosting Labour’s polling by a few percentage points will not be enough. But relentlessly targeting working class votes, older people’s votes, and offering a nuanced strategy on Brexit which pleases both sides is a good place to start. This may require shedding Labour’s metropolitan image, but for the left it is imperative that this doesn’t involve jettisoning a democratic socialist agenda or abandoning our popular policies. Corbyn cannot be viewed as a permanent leader, and at some point, we should consider a younger left-loyalist like Angela Rayner or Becky Long-Bailey as leader, Ellie Mae O’Hagan is right that Labour has “a stronger and more vibrant leftwing than it has had in years”. In spite of our collective failure the left must remain absolutely committed to putting forward a bold, transformative, redistributive agenda to the country. We cannot forget that this is fundamental to Labour’s aim to bring meaningful change for ordinary people.