The Blairites were quick to start a narrative about the election result. It was worse than 1992. And it was all Ed Miliband’s fault for failing to appeal to ‘aspirational’ voters. Hang on a minute?
The election was strange, unpredictable (literally – all the predictions were wrong), and dominated by Scotland to an extent that both bored and alienated many voters. The Tories and the SNP gripped one another in a fatal embrace – fatal to Labour, whom those two smooth operators, Sturgeon and Cameron, locked out of Downing Street. The numbers tell the story most clearly. Not the big numbers, seats won and lost, but the numbers on the ground, constituency by constituency. Labour and the Tories probably were neck and neck in lukewarm popular esteem. Without the ‘Scotland card’, Ed Miliband might yet have become the leader of a minority government.
What the ‘back to the future’ crowd in Labour are arguing, in effect, is that now is the time to look again at Labour’s retail offer. Hire a good-looking, media savvy performer to act as leader – Eddie Redmayne, perhaps? – and grab a focus group of ‘aspirational’ suburbanites who, in Tristram Hunt’s words “would like to shop at John Lewis”. Find out what the normals want, and give it to them in nice, shiny words. Bingo. Three terms in office are yours (just don’t mention the war).
This is metropolitan bubble nonsense at its most vacuous. The comeback will work if it is led by those on the ground who know the specific needs of their own communities.
Take Naz Shah’s victory against George Galloway in Bradford West. Labour’s been mishandling Bradford for decades. It took a rock solid Labour vote for granted, and ceded control of some CLPs to ethnic clan politics in the iron grip of ‘elders’. Young people, highly politicised, but without a forum for debate, voted not so much for Galloway, as against their elders. But when faced with one of their own, they knew where their interests lay. The campaign was often raucous, with packed public meetings, like something from the 1970s. And Shah’s win was by no narrow margin. She triumphed. Whether she will be a good MP, who can say? Partly that will depend upon the party left behind to work locally. But she showed that, even as a last minute candidate, when local party and candidate work with the grain of the local electorate, political renewal can happen, and fast.
Labour did well in English cities – proper cities, with diverse populations, effective local parties, and popular and hardworking MPs. That is where many lessons can be learned.
Labour failed to make it in smaller cities and towns, and in rural areas. Basically, where people use public transport, live cheek-by-jowl, and eat out in local cafes and restaurants, Labour thrives. Where people are atomised in suburbia, commute by car, and shop in hangars and malls, Labour fails. The reasons for this, and the ways in which it can be countered, need to be explored.
The Scotland question will play itself out. The Nationalists will take what they want, and Cameron has an interest in letting them consolidate their hold north of the border. It is for the Scottish Labour Party, region by region, to address that problem. But it is unlikely that Scotland will be the deal breaker in England come the next election.
And so to the leadership. Who the leader is may matter less than the grassroots rebuilding exercise. But a leadership that is London-centric, and focus-group obsessed is a tired, old, failed notion. Like Blairism.