I hear you have been going around the country listening to people’s views on how Labour can win the next election. Unfortunately, I missed the adverts for when you were holding sessions in West Yorkshire, so I am writing to offer my views for you to listen to before the Labour conference.
I am just an ordinary Labour Party member: I have never held elected office, I am not a branch or Constituency Labour Party officer. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been involved. Like hundreds of thousands of members, I was out in all weathers working for a Labour victory in 2019 in an election that, you will recall, was held in December. My constituency is semi-rural, so knocking on doors and delivering leaflets meant going out in wind and freezing rain, in daylight and in darkness, in towns and on country lanes and muddy footpaths. What drove us on was hope – hope for the best Labour government of our lifetimes.
Every Labour member will have their own story, but I will tell you a little of mine. I am a journalist and I first joined the party more than 40 years ago. I helped get Tony Banks selected and elected in Newham North West. We moved to west London, where I met future general secretary Margaret McDonagh, then a London organiser for the party, while campaigning in the 1988 Kensington by-election. After a move to Leeds, I resigned from Labour, purely because it was professionally inappropriate for me at the time to belong to a political party. I continued, however, to write a huge amount of material for Margaret in my own time, for council elections and parliamentary by-elections (I helped Kate Hoey get elected for the first time… if only I had known!), and for the 1992 general election. I always voted Labour, apart from in 2005 (when I wasn’t a member and I lived in a safe Tory seat). I was appalled by the Iraq War and felt that Charles Kennedy offered a more progressive programme than Tony Blair.
In June 2015, I retired from my job and rejoined the party. It was, as you will recall, a summer of hope after the disappointing general election defeat. I was inspired by my daughters’ enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn and felt that, following his landslide election, Labour had a leader who could get young people engaged in progressive politics. Perhaps you too felt that optimism? To see a Labour leader mobbed wherever he went felt like a sign that politics didn’t always have to be the same.
Obviously, it was going to take more than two years to reverse 20 years of electoral decline in 2017, but the biggest increase in Labour’s vote since 1945 told its own story. That election came just a little too soon: a month later, Labour was polling significantly higher than the Tories. It was a defeat, but a defeat that pointed the way towards a route to victory in the future.
The 2019 general election, of course, was the “Brexit Election” and we now know there was no way Labour could have squared that circle – members and voters were split down the middle on the EU. I hoped your renegotiation and second referendum policy might work, but as I kept being angrily told on the doorstep: “We’ve already voted – just get on with Brexit!”
That’s all in the past, but there are lessons we must learn from that disappointment. We know that Labour’s vote and share of the vote, even in 2019, were considerably larger than in 2010 and 2015 (and the vote was bigger even than 2005, when Labour last won). We know that relatively few Labour voters switched to the Conservatives (the Tory vote went up by only 330,000 votes). Most importantly, we know that a huge majority of younger people voted Labour – electoral gold that must not be squandered. Younger voters are the future of our party and of the nation.
What must the Labour Party learn from this? First, it is absolutely vital to hold on to those 10,269,051 votes from 2019. Any marketing expert will tell you that it is much easier to retain an existing customer than to win a new one. So Labour must continue to offer progressive, radical and life-changing policies that will enthuse younger voters. Sadly, the signs right now don’t look good.
Secondly, the party must be united. You were elected on a platform of party unity, but Labour is now more divided than ever. The party has always been a “broad church”, but those in the PLP and elsewhere who opposed the previous leadership well and truly dynamited that church. Can it be rebuilt? Only if those members who devoted their efforts to preventing a Labour government are kept well away.
Here are seven simple actions you can take that would go a huge way towards uniting the party:
1. Publish the Forde Report. Members were shocked last year to read that party staff, employed to get Labour into government, were actively engaged in obstructing that aim. In addition, employees demonstrated appalling racism (even towards senior frontbenchers) and deliberately obstructed the investigation of antisemitism complaints with the aim of embarrassing the party leadership.
Until the Forde Report is published and members know that staff exposed in the leaked report will never again work for Labour or be part of it in any way, there will always be an irreparable rift in the party.
Similarly, anyone in the party who has tried to undermine its electoral chances in the past must not be allowed to play any role in the future – that, of course, includes former MPs who left to form a rival party. It might be invidious to single out any individual, given how many treacherous MPs and ex-MPs tried to undermine the party, but it is impossible to see how Lord Mandelson, a man who said he worked every day to keep Labour out of power, can now have anything to offer to a party that aims to win power.
2. Restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn. His punishment is against natural justice and it is impossible to understand the logic of withdrawing the whip from the single most popular MP in the party.
Lisa Nandy said this week that he needed to apologise – but for what? In his response to the EHRC’s report on antisemitism in Labour, Corbyn called for the report’s recommendations to be swiftly implemented and added that allegations of antisemitism had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. Is there anyone who seriously doubts that?
Journalist Simon Heffer said on national radio that Corbyn “wanted to reopen Auschwitz”. You were a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. How many times did you discuss opening death camps for Jews? The Jewish press, backed up by a former chief rabbi, combined to warn that a Labour government represented an “existential threat” to British Jews. Again, you were in the shadow cabinet. Was it going to be Labour policy to end the existence of Jews? Of course, it wasn’t. So allegations of antisemitism WERE massively overstated and Corbyn was only telling the truth.
Not only that, but he was doing what all of us SHOULD be doing. Unless you believe it is right that Jewish people in Britain should live in fear of Labour, it is your duty, and the duty of every member, to make clear at every opportunity that the antisemitism threat magnified by Labour’s enemies was dramatically overstated.
And it is your duty, as leader of the party, to face down those enemies of Labour who spread this vile calumny that has affected us all. You said last year that your “friend” Jeremy had been “vilified”. It’s time to stand up for him. Give back the whip and appear on a platform with the man who gave you your frontbench job. It’s the least you can do – and the party can’t move on until that happens.
3. Restore free speech and democracy in the party. During the Corbyn years, there were alarmist stories of “Stalinist” purges. They never happened. In the past year, however, there has been a shameful outbreak of censorship, authoritarianism, and suspensions/expulsions of members regarded as “dissidents”. Acting general secretary David Evans, with the help of his regional officers, seems determined to create an atmosphere of fear.
I proposed a motion at my branch that condemned antisemitism and pledged solidarity with Jewish members. Branch officers, in fear of suspension, persuaded me to withdraw the motion. Can you imagine that? After years of being accused, as Labour members, of being complicit in antisemitism, we were effectively banned from condemning it! And we have been banned from discussing the general secretary’s behaviour, which is extraordinary. How many other members’ organisations would allow an employee to ban members from talking about himself?
This “reign of terror” has seen many good people suspended, expelled, or driven to leave the party in disgust. Most worryingly, this has included a disproportionate number of Jewish members, many of them elderly, leading to fears that the party has actually become antisemitic under your leadership. This witch hunt must stop now if Labour is to stand any chance of being united and winning an election at any time in the future.
Please instruct party staff that members are NOT the enemy – it is the Tories they should be fighting
4. Prove that Labour is still a safe place for Jews by recognising Jewish Voice for Labour as a Labour affiliate. JVL worked hard for a Labour victory in 2019, so it is outrageous that it is not affiliated while organisations that worked against the party’s interests in that election continue to enjoy that status.
5. Set up a commission to look at electoral reform. This might not be high on some people’s list of pressing issues – and it can only be implemented if we win an election – but it is important if we are ever going to stop the Conservative Party winning landslides with a minority of votes. I know people who didn’t vote Labour in 2019 simply because the manifesto didn’t include electoral reform.
Reform means making choices from the many voting systems available – Labour needs to have preferred options to put in front of voters at the next general election.
6. Launch an immediate recruitment drive. The Labour Party was the biggest political party in western Europe post-2015 and that made it financially secure. Many members, including myself, gave the party extra money to fight election campaigns in addition to subscriptions. Now the party has gone from financial security to laying off staff.
Worse than that, 150,000 disaffected former members could be spreading negative views about Labour. We need them working for us, spreading good news. Win them back. Make clear this IS the party for them. An excellent start would be (as you suggested last year) to use the 2017 manifesto as a “foundational document” to recreate the optimism of that summer. I know excellent people – who have given way more time and effort than most people to Labour and truly belong in the party – who have left. But other good people are hanging on, so it is not too late to rebuild.
Members are the party’s strength. Stop the exodus now.
7. Start doing more to oppose this dreadful government. This last year, the Tories’ catastrophic mismanagement of the virus and the economy presented a golden opportunity for you to build your personal image and for the party to show it stands up for ordinary people. This opportunity has been missed, but the Tories continue to present open goals to Labour – on broken election promises, National Insurance, pension increases, Universal Credit, wealth tax… It’s time to stop being so defensive and (I know you are a football fan) to slam the ball into the back of that net.
I am only an ordinary member of the Labour Party – but you have been on a “listening tour” this year and, like other members, I believe my views are worth listening to.
Some party officials might prefer this to be a letter of resignation, but I refuse to give those enemies of Labour that satisfaction. I am staying to fight – because, at an age when I could just give up and accept a Tory government for the rest of my life, I still have hope. I hope we can get rid of this appalling government – not for my own sake, but for the sake of my children and my new grandson. And I hope we can replace it with a Labour government worth fighting for.
Will you listen to me? You said you had an open mind, so please hear this: Labour is nothing if it is not standing up for the many. Labour is nothing if it does not have progressive and radical ideas that can enthuse our young people and offer them the hope of a better life. And Labour is nothing if it is permanently in opposition because it has no vision, no alternative, and nothing to win over the voters. The optimism of 2017 showed us a way to win, so let’s learn from that and recapture that sense of purpose that convinced so many.
Thank you for reading this. Please accept it in the comradely spirit in which it was offered – and please listen.
Calder branch of Calder Valley CLP