Britain’s Labour Party Needs a 21st-Century Tony Blair—Not Blairism

After a devastating loss, the British opposition needs a leader who offers credible economic policy promises rather than pipe dreams—and knows how to win.

Labour Party members, including several current contenders for the party's leadership, applauded as Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech on the final day of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on Sept. 27, 2017.
Labour Party members, including several current contenders for the party's leadership, applauded as Jeremy Corbyn delivered a speech on the final day of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on Sept. 27, 2017. BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

As a triumphant Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the country from a podium in front of Downing Street on Dec. 13, over in the Labour camp, the recriminations were already flying.

It would be hard to overstate just how devastating a defeat the party has just suffered: Labour won the smallest number of parliamentary seats it has had since 1935, at a point in the electoral cycle—after nine years of Tory government, a time during which many voters have seen their living standards decline—when an opposition party would be expected to be building toward victory, if not winning. Many of the biggest losses occurred in Labour’s heartland seats in in the north of England and the Midlands that were until recently regarded as safe.

The tendency after a defeat of this scale is to descend into sectarian blame games. And the Labour Party has not disappointed in that regard. Many of party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors have treated the size of the defeat as a vindication of the arguments they have been making in recent years. Centrist critics of Corbyn claim it was his leadership, and Labour’s full-fat socialist manifesto, that were responsible for the defeat. Members of Parliament who have spent the last four years arguing Labour needed to come out as pro-Brexit after the 2016 referendum have blamed the defeat on its muddled stance on Brexit: in favor of another referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal, but with the leadership insisting it would be neutral in that referendum.

The post-election debate within Labour has been characterized more by bitter wrangling than coolheaded analysis. Indeed, one leadership contender is threatening to sue one of her former colleagues for alleging on air that she said she was “glad my constituents aren’t as stupid as yours.”

But it is coolheaded analysis that Labour needs as it approaches the momentous choice of who should be its next leader, which will be decided in a contest that will run over the first three months of next year as candidates meeting several arcane requirements—including a minimum number of nominations from their fellow MPs and a percentage of local constituencies or affiliated unions—go forward to a ballot of all party members and registered supporters to select the winner.

The next leader will have to reckon with the many missteps that led to defeat. The lack of a clear Brexit stance—Labour was neither really seen as a Remain or a Leave party—was clearly a problem, but there was no Brexit position Labour could have adopted that would not have lost it at least some votes. If it had become a party of soft Brexit, that might have saved some of its losses in the north, but that could have cost it seats in Remain-voting areas such as London.

Meanwhile, Conservative Remain voters were far more likely to stick with a pro-Brexit Conservative Party than Labour Leave voters were to stick with a pro-Brexit Labour: Conservative Remainers found Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street much less palatable than Brexit. And Labour’s problems in its heartlands went far beyond Brexit: The party’s working-class support has steadily declined since the early 2000s, partly as a result of a perceived disconnect on cultural values and such issues as immigration; Brexit simply accelerated the growing divide between the party and the voter base it once considered rock-solid.

Any leader needed to address this long-term decline in order to win. And while Corbyn clearly energized a new generation of Labour activists, he tanked with voters. He went into the election the least popular leader of the opposition in decades. Polls suggest that his leadership was a more important factor than Brexit in explaining why voters abandoned Labour. They saw Corbyn as weak on national security, and his dreadful handling of the anti-Semitism crisis that has engulfed Labour—and his stubborn refusal to show any contrition for this throughout the campaign—was a major problem for voters, especially for the Jewish community, who have historically tended to support Labour.

Although the Labour manifesto contained a number of policies that were individually popular, experts questioned whether the numbers added up. When voters were told that they could have free broadband, the abolition of university tuition fees, free dentistry, a four-day work week, free social care, and the nationalization of the rail network, energy, and water—and that only businesses and the top 5 percent of earners would have to pay for it—they simply didn’t buy it.

For Labour to win again, it needs to borrow from the insights of Tony Blair, the only Labour leader to have won a general election in the last 45 years. That doesn’t mean that the party needs to adopt a Blairite policy agenda; Britain faces a completely different set of questions a decade on from the financial crisis than it did back in the late 1990s. But there are a number of timeless lessons on the importance of leadership and emotional connection to voters, and of developing a credible policy agenda, to unite a broad coalition of voters to win under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

There is one big difference, however: In 1994, the challenge Blair faced was to win over middle-class supporters in southern England; in 2020, the new Labour leader will need to have to keep hold of the support the party has won from younger voters in metropolitan areas such as London, Manchester, and Liverpool, while winning back support from working-class and older voters in its historic heartlands in the north and the Midlands.

The debate about whom Labour’s next leader should be is already being framed in terms of gender, geography, and faction. Labour has never been led by a woman, and, given there are a number of excellent female candidates, there is no reason why its next leader should not be a woman. But more important than where the leader is from, or even their ideology, is whether they have the charisma and leadership to win.

The Labour election campaign made little effort to persuade voters who might not intuitively share the party’s socialist worldview.

Party members casting their votes in this contest should be asking themselves: Can leadership candidates connect with voters in a way that former leaders such as Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, and Jeremy Corbyn never did? Can they explain what a Labour government would mean to them in terms of their day-to-day lives, rather than framed in a way that only makes sense if they agree with a socialist worldview? That requires pragmatism, not dogma.

One of the key problems with Labour’s 2019 manifesto was that its core narrative—“for the many, not the few”—simply assumed that people saw the world through a “capitalists versus us” lens and subscribed to the same view of what constitutes fairness as Corbyn’s inner circle; the campaign made little effort to persuade those voters who might not intuitively share those perspectives. An ability to see the world through the eyes of the voters they’re trying to win over is a far more important trait for any potential leader than whether they self-describe as Corbynite, soft-left, or Blairite.

Finally, Labour needs to be economically credible with Britain’s growing number of swing voters—those without a strong party affiliation—to win. Back in 1997, Blair and Brown earned their stripes by pledging not to raise taxes for the life of the next parliament and to stick to Conservative spending plans for the first two years of a Labour government. It’s too early to say what being economically credible in 2024 will require, but Labour needs a leader prepared to do what it takes.

A campaign should promote a limited number of pledges that relate to what voters see as important, not what Labour politicians wish they would see as important.

There were plenty of good policy proposals in the 2019 Labour manifesto—such as the Green New deal and free home care visits for those over 65—that must be preserved over those policies that were simply a step too far, such as free universal broadband.

A general election campaign should not be used to communicate a broad 20-year vision for government: It should be used to promote a limited number of key pledges that relate to what voters see as important, not what Labour politicians wish they would see as important. Less is more. Schools and hospitals should absolutely feature—but so should those issues that are not traditionally strengths for Labour, such as crime and national security.

Politicians must always strike a delicate balance between responding to voters and how they see the world, while convincing them that their party’s worldview has something to offer. Corbynism was a resounding failure because it did not even attempt the former: it simply lectured voters as if they were already fully signed up to the project. That, above all, is the mistake the next Labour leader must avoid repeating at all costs.

Sonia Sodha is the chief editorial writer at the British weekly, the Observer, and a columnist at the Guardian and the Observer. Twitter: @soniasodha

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