Labour has been found wanting

The fallout from the referendum continues. A Tory leadership crisis has been followed by resignations from shadow cabinet members expressing discontent with the Labour leader. There is a vacuum at the centre of our national politics, which Labour should be filling. It is not.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has issued an emergency statement designed to reassure markets about the government’s commitment to economic and financial stability – which I argued two weeks ago would be required in the event of Brexit. When George Osborne and Alistair Darling made the claim that an emergency budget would be required, their argument was instantly dismissed by the Leave campaign, and indeed by some Remain supporters who believed they were making an outlandish point. It does not seem so outlandish now. There is a serious problem however. George Osborne has postponed any announcement on changes to fiscal measures until the Autumn, when new OBR forecasts have been produced. He has done this even while acknowledging it will mean more months of postponed business decisions on jobs and investment. But where is Labour’s reaction? Where is Labour’s alternative economic policy? Are we serious about being the alternative government–in-waiting?

Labour has some hard thinking to do after this referendum. The party lost touch with swathes of its own supporters. There are two key ways this happened. First, Labour had not taken seriously the need to reform the economy to work for the many and not the few. The financial crisis was probably the biggest wake up call we could have had. Yet in opposition after 2010 we had no clear message on the economy; merely a serious of policies designed to carve support from segments of the population. The leadership at the time knew this was insufficient because it bolted a fiscal commitment to the front of the 2015 manifesto. The problems had been developing long before the financial crisis (as I argued in The Credibility Deficit). We needed to deal with deep levels of inequality, with public investment, and large scale provision for better education, housing, services, and opportunities. We needed to address positively the challenges of rising and sudden migration. Since the 2015 election, little progress has been made on all these fronts. Rather, in most cases we have gone backwards.

Second, one of the depressing aspects of the referendum campaign was that even Labour voters predisposed to vote for Remain were not clear about Labour’s policy. I was not the only campaigner to find Labour voters initially unsure of which way to vote, until they heard that Labour was for Remain and the reasons why. That was despite a good ground campaign in my area (Vauxhall, part of Lambeth). The lack of clear communication at a national level was deplorable. This is not only a point about communicating our policy, but about arguing passionately and persuasively for it. Even relying on a core vote strategy requires effective communication with the core vote. This was an issue of profound, almost the most profound, national interest. Labour was found wanting.

We are in a period of great political instability. It is essential that Labour makes the case for a Brexit deal that upholds the values we hold so dear and that ensures we have an economy that works for everyone. That will look different to the kind of deal that Boris Johnson or any other Conservative leadership contender will look to make. There is a battle of ideas still to be won, in the country and in parliament. We will have no chance of winning it if we continue to be lacklustre, intellectually shallow, and content to focus on protest over effective campaigning. For too long senior politicians in both parties have avoided the serious thinking and hard decision-making that our great country requires. That must end. The national interest requires Labour to reform itself without delay.

This article was first published by Progress on 27 June 2016.

Progress, 27 June 2016, 04/07/2016


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