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25.11.15

How to think about the next ten years for Labour

We have transitioned from a summer of hard truths to an autumn that painfully strains credulity. On BBC Question Time, we’ve had everything from John McDonnell’s non-apology apology for IRA comments to Chris Bryant’s self-depreciating “aww shucks” routine when Labour is reduced to mirth; from Stephen Kinnock’s failure to make anything straight from the crooked timber of Labour on the nuclear deterrence to Lisa Nandy’s struggle to disassociate Labour with violence at the Conservative Party conference.

At the time, I thought we’d reached the bottom of the market for the Labour currency on 7 May 2015. That the cycle would move in our favour from that point. Things could only get better. Actually, we’ve not only continued to fall, we have debased our stock. And debasing money, as Zero Hedge notes, debases trust.

Parties win general elections, as Uncut has long observed, when their leader is most trusted to best execute the functions of prime minister and their capacity for economic decision making holds the trust of the electorate. Electing the most unpopular new opposition leader in the history of polling does not seem the way to build these forms of trust.

The breakdown in relations between Labour and the country is such that we can arrive at another hard truth: It is unlikely that Labour will form a government after the next general election, expected in May 2020.

Maybe realisation at how far Labour has to climb electorally helped Jeremy Corbyn become leader. Better to lose in style, the logic goes, if we must lose. But to fail to take the most electorally plausible course is to tacitly concede that there is nothing so tremendously objectionable about the Tory-run country that we purport to rail against.

For the first time in my adult life, I struggle to see an electorally plausible route to Labour winning the next general election. In fact, we are sufficiently far from one that the Tories will likely comprehensively win, taking 2025 beyond us too, which would mean that we won’t see another Labour government before I am over 50 years old. That is a frightening thought to me but should be more so to all of those who depend upon Labour government.

Let us make explicit another hard truth implicit in this: We are no longer in the winning in 2020 game but the trying to give ourselves a chance of winning in 2025 game.

If we spend the whole parliament being humiliated every week on Question Time, we can forget about a Labour government before 2030. If we care about the long-term viability of Labour, we need to start being taken seriously again ASAP. It needs to happen well in advance of the next general election – at least two years before – for us to have any chance of winning the one after that. This is the grim reality of getting through the cardiac arrest that we now endure.

But beyond this traumatic experience, we can look with more positivity and open mindedness upon the future. As the due date for Labour government recedes, the vista of its possibilities expands. What a political party can become a decade hence can be something very different from what it can become half a decade from now. This absolutely shouldn’t be an invitation to indulgence – we’ve pushed ourselves to heart attack through excess of that – but to rethink the basic purposes of the party from first principles.

Thinking back to another period of Labour reassessment, Siôn Simon has previouslyrecalled the mood of Labour staffers drinking in the Palace of Westminster on Margaret Thatcher’s last night as prime minister:

“In the backs of our minds, we know that she been right about some things that we were wrong about; but this is a notion with which we cannot yet cope. It is, literally, a disgusting thought. (Though somewhere in our deeper recesses, some of us recognise this truth will eventually have to be confronted).”

When this truth was confronted, Labour rebuilt public trust, then as diminished as it is now. This allowed us to return to government and secure tremendous change.

We will require similar confrontations before Labour is again electable. But these confrontations are not only about the hard yards of recovering Labour’s electability. Labour’s soul is to be salvaged in them too.

Yes, we need, for example, to be prove that we can be trusted with other people’s money, that we won’t run large fiscal deficits, to form another government. But we’ve rushed in the past to spend too much of other people’s money due to misplaced convictions that government is the answer to all problems and that the more government we have the more socialist we are. There are deeper misconceptions in play here, which reach into Labour’s soul, than simply those of electoral pragmatism.

Labour’s soul, as well as our electoral prospects, can be patched up by 2025. Provided that we still have something to patch up by 2020. Time is critical after heart attacks. Every hour now counts.