The stone upon which Labour’s pledges were cast was designed to reassure the electorate that it could be trusted to keep its promises on its core pledges. The fact that it was justifiably ridiculed from the moment it was unveiled was a sign of Labour’s desperation in the last days of the 2015 General Election.
This stunningly bad idea was successful in one respect in that it drew attention away from the words that were written on it, since appearance of this monolith, like that on Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was purely symbolic; if not somewhat surreal. This is because what was actually written on it was so banal, so meaningless as to make little sense to voters who had decided that they did not trust Labour. Others thought that all politicians from the established parties were the same and either voted UKIP or did not vote at all, while a significant number also voted for anti-austerity parties; especially in Scotland…but to a significant degree in Wales and England too.
The stone’s rhetorical emptiness was really the reflection of a party that had lost its way, a mere purveyor of ideas that had their life focus grouped out of them; a party that claimed to care but had anti-immigration mugs produced. It was a party that had lost it radicalism, lost its innovation and lost its soul.
Fast forward several months and an equally banal leadership contest has suddenly sprung into life with the momentum that left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn has amassed over the last few weeks sending the Blairite wing into a blind panic, with its architect wading into the debate saying it was heart against head, with those wanting to support Corbyn needing a heart transplant, a comment which seems, if anything, to have solidified the latter’s lead in the campaign.
Blair is almost right. A heart transplant is needed, but it is the Party’s heart that needs a transplant. Nowhere is this more evident than with the event that has sparked the debate into action, the Party’s refusal to oppose the government’s bill on welfare changes…a bill which will plunge more people into poverty (although the government is seeking to redefine poverty in order to reduce it, something the then Tory government did with the unemployment rate many times in the 1980s). Not to oppose this because of what a certain section of the electorate, those who have drifted back to the Conservatives over the past few years, is the mark of a party who no longer knows what it believes in, a party that has in essence become style over substance. A party of no direction, unlike the Conservatives who have an agenda and are getting stuck into it voraciously.
When a Labour government has done well it has set out ideas, it has set out a narrative that people can buy into, be it Attlee’s NHS, Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’ or Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’. To win again, therefore, Labour needs to re-discover its radical heart, it needs to find a narrative that will appeal to those who are not politically minded in any structured way, and it needs to form a coalition that will inspire a large enough section of the electorate to believe in it again.
The Blairite argument is that this only happens when the Party heads for the centre, but this is an assumption that needs to be tested because there are other potential areas of growth: those who are disaffected with politics, those who voted for anti-austerity parties in 2015, and the core of Labour’s current support could well be found to be towards what we have traditionally called the left. To form this sort of coalition, however, it will need all Labour supporters to leave their comfort zones, not just those on the Blairite wing. Those on the left will need to think long and hard about how the Party can re-imagine itself going into the third decade of the twenty-first century: how it can be flexible and contemporary, connective and compassionate. To do that it will need to enlist the help of possibly the biggest losers from the recent budget, the young; a group who were inspired by the SNP’s referendum campaign, and a group who have helped revitalise that party.
After a defeat like the one recently suffered, nothing about Labour’s future should be cast in stone. Everything should be up for debate and Corbyn’s momentum is clear evidence of that. How the party copes with that over what is going to be a long and difficult summer will determine how it can begin to recover because major heart surgery is required, not just a simple bypass.