On the 27th of February 1900, a group of trade unionists, politicians and intellectuals gathered in the Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street, London. United in their commitment to improving the lives of workers, they established what would become known as the Labour Party. The labour movement had already made inroads into local government, bringing about the construction of social housing, better conditions for council workers, and the provision of free school meals. But on that day, a new dream was born: power in Westminster.
Keir Starmer is now tasked with reigniting that dream. He has already taken steps to renew the Party internally, with the appointment of a formidable Shadow Cabinet and immediate action on antisemitism. He also needs to re-evaluate whom the Party represents, looking outwards to the country instead of inwards to the membership. He must engage with voters on the issues they care about. He must address the big changes of the coming decade. And he must tailor his message to each region of the country. Labour can only win if it is relevant.
In 2010, Labour didn’t just lose an election – it lost its way. The subsequent leadership election saw Ed Miliband narrowly beat his brother, bringing with him internal reforms that boosted the power of the membership. Whether good or bad in their own right, these reforms were a sign of the Party turning inwards. We began to debate the issues that mattered to us, not the issues that mattered to the country. We spent five years picking apart the previous Labour government, giving Cameron’s government the space to run our public services into the ground. Miliband is a brilliant politician. However, he talked up his programme to be more radical than it was in order to appease the left of the party, while buying into the Tories’ rhetoric on austerity and immigration in a misguided flail at electability.
Devastated, the Party looked for change in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. The ideas generated during his leadership were exciting and much needed. Yet while the long-term, comprehensive vision was there, the political strategy wasn’t. Instead of honing in on issues relevant to people’s lives, the campaign tried to whip up a 1970s class consciousness that simply wasn’t there. The pitch of “For the many, not the few” left many wondering which camp they were supposed to be in. The sweeping ideology behind it seemed disconnected from people’s lives – a more truthful slogan would have been “For the members, not for you”.
Moreover, Labour didn’t behave like a party of government. With his activist skillset and rigidity in the face of criticism, Corbyn couldn’t foster unity. Factionalism drained talent from the front bench and allowed antisemitism to tear through the movement. If you don’t look ready to lead the country, the country won’t put you in charge.
Under Starmer, Labour must rediscover relevance. First, that means looking like a government-in-waiting, not an opposition-ad-infinitum. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the bar for anyone hoping to run the country: voters will ask whether Labour can be trusted when crisis hits. Starmer’s moves so far to work constructively with the Government are encouraging. The breadth and talent on the front benches are colossal. However, it will only shine through if there is unity on the backbenches, so Keir must continue to cultivate this. The Party administration should be competent, not factional. It’s evident from the way Starmer staffed his campaign that he shares this view.
Second, it means listening to the issues which people care about now. This is where we failed on Brexit. We refused to believe that people really cared to leave. We didn’t listen when they spoke about sovereignty – surely, we thought, people only really care about incomes and public services. As a result, we campaigned only on the latter, treating Brexit like some minor inconvenience to be dealt with later. We must learn that if something matters to people, it matters full stop.
Third, it means getting ahead on the issues that will define the coming decade. We are already strong on climate change. But we are too quiet on emerging technologies – big data, artificial intelligence, and the dangerous concentrations of power that will accompany them. We haven’t mapped out how to engage with China’s rise and its increasing tensions with the US. We will face various crossroads regarding our role as a global player: trade relations; international development; and defence alliances against threats of nuclear, cyber and biowarfare.
Lastly, it requires a country-wide strategy. In Scotland, the SNP is the default party for progressives and the Conservatives are the default for unionists. Yet progressive politics needn’t entail nationalism, and unionism needn’t entail conservatism. Starmer’s plan for a federalist settlement is a bold attempt to harness the best of both. He must be equally as proactive in finding solutions tailored to every region, heeding the core message of Nandy’s campaign.
There’s a long road ahead. But after a decade of stalling, Labour is on the move again.
Ed Lawrence is on Twitter @ed_lawrence_