If the Coronavirus crisis teaches us anything, it is that the old politics is over. Our Get Brexit Done government spraying money in every direction, state intervention in myriad unimaginable ways, a belated, blinking recognition that untrammelled global capitalism leaves billions of ordinary, hard-working people one shove away from poverty.
And this tragedy, in which millions of our citizens watch a government playing catch-up, depending entirely upon the very experts they were deriding so very recently.
The sad truth is that our party – the party created to find a new way towards the goal of a socially just society, a way that acknowledged a proper role for all – handed the current government the keys to No. 10 last year by our own, self-indulgent battle between ideologies that ran out of steam half a century ago.
As we await the announcement of our new leader, we all have a duty to seriously re-examine our part in creating this current state of affairs. That begins with an honest assessment of where we have gone wrong, generally, over the past decade, and specifically in the ill-advised 2019 general election.
It is still hard to fathom the turkeys-voting-for-Christmas behaviour by the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaderships that gave Boris Johnson the election he wanted on the Brexit agenda he wanted at the time he wanted.
Both leaders seemed to have had the delusional belief they could be prime minister. Instead our new Leader has been left having to climb a mighty mountain to win the next general election.
The party’s defeat last December was stark. Labour’s 32 per cent share of the vote was one of its lowest ever, with 203 MPs the lowest since 1935.
There is now just one Scottish Labour MP where there were habitually around 50, and there were massive losses to the Tories in our generational stronghold of Wales, where in 1997 the Conservative Party lost in every seat.
South of the M4, Labour has just six seats outside London and Bristol. We also suffered huge losses across the north and the Midlands.
By the 2019 election, Labour’s voting base had become overwhelmingly metropolitan – city-based, middle class, young, multi-ethnic and post-school educated. We are nowhere in towns we once dominated, and we are nowhere in rural areas. Altogether we are trailing badly in the majority of the UK.
One December 2019 polling-day survey put Labour’s supposed core vote at around a measly 20 per cent, symbolised by Dennis Skinner’s iconic seat of Bolsover falling to the Tories.
We hung on in Neath, the former coal mining and manufacturing constituency I represented for a quarter of a century and where I still live. But that was more out of inter-generational loyalty than any strong allegiance. My majority in 1997 was 27,000, my successor Christina Rees’s last December was 6,000; in a predominantly working class so called-Labour stronghold the Tory vote surged.
In common with parties of the parliamentary left across western Europe, the link between Labour and our working-class base has been dissolving under our feet. I could feel it happening over the years since I first won Neath in 1991. I issued warnings about it, but nobody, including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown listened. The umbilical cord through trade unions, community clubs to Labour voters has been severed in similar former Labour strongholds right across the country.
With deindustrialisation, dwindling trade union membership, and the closure of clubs and pubs by the thousand, the solidarity and community reflecting Labour’s values in of all these institutions has faded away and been further undermined by neoliberal job insecurity and exploitation, leaving migrants as convenient scapegoats.
To form the next government, the party needs to win an extra 123 seats, a formidable target, very rarely achieved by any party.
That doesn’t mean we can’t win, still less that Labour is finished. We have won previous general elections after historic defeats. But it took 18 years to do so before 1997; 13 years before 1964; and a World War on top of a Tory decade before 1945.
On each of those three occasions Labour’s working-class base was still solid, if changing, and, crucially, we had visionary, popular leadership.
So, our next Leader must be frank with Party members about that mighty mountain to climb, not pretending it isn’t there, or can be skirted around. The NEC and the trade unions need to be involved in developing a strategy which rebuilds trust in our lost heartlands.
Then above everything else we must offer a policy agenda that provides an alternative to the neoliberal economics that has turned these deindustrialised communities from having proud, secure jobs underpinned by trade unions into a world of job insecurity, zero hours contracts or precarious self-employment.
That means an unashamedly modern Keynesian economic agenda. To be fair to him, that is what shadow chancellor John McDonnell advocated, making an admirable break from the Miliband-Balls triangulation that meant nobody knew what we stood for, except maybe an unappealing ‘smaller cuts’.
But heartland voters, who long stopped listening to McDonnell and Corbyn, were incredulous when the two added mega-billion bills in promising to renationalise electricity and water: the real priority should have been using vital public resources to build houses not pay off private shareholders. What little credibility Corbyn had was further eroded by a pile of last-minute un-costed commitments.
So, our new Leader should prioritise a pro-growth, investment-driven zero-carbon economic agenda that delivers fair shares in the recovery. And what better time to do it?
By announcing extra billions and subventions for employers, employees and the self-employed to deal with the dire consequences of the coronavirus – and with the door left open for even more investment if and when needed – Britain’s new chancellor Rishi Sunak has blown a hole in all the dogma of the last ten years of Tory austerity.
The small-government cheerleaders for Boris Johnson have been forced to concede that urgent action to stave off disaster demands big decisions that only government can take because only the state can provide the resources required in a national emergency.
Which is why chancellor Sunak was right to reject ten years of Osborne austerity and to throw the power of the state at the gravest crisis Britain has faced for 80 years. It has been an unexpected learning experience for him and his party – and it has been ten years overdue.
If his sudden and monumental fiscal offerings to beat the coronavirus pandemic can be produced like a rabbit out of a hat, then the question is why appropriate extra public spending was not found from the very start of Tory rule in 2010 to deal with the aftermath of the global financial crisis?
Why instead was the country plunged into ten years of savage cuts – driven by neoliberal dogma, not necessity – and which have gravely damaged the country’s capacity, including our ability to fight this terrifying pandemic?
If our new Leader makes that case, then we can start winning the economic argument again – and that’s an essential prerequisite to winning back the millions of voters we have lost.
Peter Hain is Labour peer and campaigner, author Back to the Future of Socialism (Policy Press 2015) and Mandela: His Essential Life (Rowman & Littlefield July 2018). He was MP for Neath, 1991-2015, and served as a cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He tweets @PeterHain