‘Persuade the public, frighten the Tories and Labour could win again’, Observer, 24 May 2015

No one really knows who first declared that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. But somebody should tell the LabourParty – and quickly.

It is May 2010. Labour has just gone down to one of its worst-ever defeats. Its crestfallen leader has upped and gone, leaving a shell-shocked party to try to pick up the pieces, figure out what went wrong and choose his successor. The consensus is that the contest should be played long. In the meantime, Harriet Harman will supposedly see to it that the Tories don’t have things all their own way.

As for the candidates, those with a serious chance of winning would struggle to convince the average voter that they’d done much outside politics since graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. Worse, all are complicit in the catastrophe that has befallen the party: none appears to have voiced doubts about the previous leader and his strategy at the time, doubts that they now claim to have harboured all along.

Their takes on why the party lost and what it needs to do to put things right may vary slightly, at least to the cognoscenti, but only in ways that are too easily caricatured by their rivals as Blairite or Brownite, Blue Labour or New Labour or simply sucking up to the unions.

All of them, however, are agreed that the party badly needs to get back in touch with the British people, especially on the issues where it’s lost their confidence – the economy, welfare and immigration.

Sadly, none of the candidates seems to be quite the full package and there is a strong sense that a fair amount of their support comes from people keen to pick the winner so that they can land a plum job, many of whom aren’t altogether sure that their favoured candidate deserves the job, but reckon one of the others would be a disaster.

No one is happy with the system used to choose the winner, either. It affords too much power to the unions, although, given how dependent the party has become on their money, there’s arguably not that much that can be done about it. The system also manages to give Labour MPs too much say over who can stand, yet makes it possible that the winner won’t be able to claim the support of even a plurality, let alone a majority, of the PLP.

The only upside is that the Tories’ vote share was only six or seven percentage points above Labour’s. So if the party picks the right candidate, then it stands an outside chance at the next election, not least because David Cameron may not be around that long.

If Labour makes the wrong choice, however, it only has itself to blame. If your favourite candidate doesn’t get the nod, then you’re entitled to sit on your hands, snipe from the sidelines and let whoever wins fail, instead of doing all you can to make them see sense, or else get rid of them.

You can then say “told you so” and insist they’ve “tested to destruction” the strategy you always knew was never going to work. Don’t bank on anyone listening, though, because, like most political parties, Labour is a deeply dysfunctional organisation in hock to powerful vested interests and struggling to come terms with accelerating economic, social and cultural change.

Sound eerily familiar? It should do. Because it’s happening all over again.

All too often, especially when their vanquished champions swiftly depart the scene – some for the Ovalothers for Ibiza – defeated parties fail to give themselves the time and space to conduct a proper post-mortem. As a result, a debate that, for a moment, looks like it might open up suddenly gets closed down. Or else it’s reduced to soundbites and magic bullet solutions involving this or that policy, this or that segment of the electorate, this or that region.

Telling the party that it has to win in “the south”, or make a comeback in Scotland, or see off Ukip in its “northern heartlands”, stressing that it must reconnect with “business”, “aspirational voters” or “the white working class”, or that salvation lies in persuading “lazy” Labour supporters to turn up on polling day, is at once simplistic and unnecessarily complicated.

It is simplistic because there is no way, only a couple of weeks after a process that involves millions of individuals making up their minds, that we can definitively understand what the hell just happened. The necessary research is going to take time and even then, because it relies mainly on a means of tapping into public opinion that got it badly wrong in the run-up to the election, it may be discounted or even summarily dismissed.

Moreover, Labour, unlike the Conservative party, lacks a mischievous millionaire prepared to pay to package up that research so swiftly and so arrestingly that it will practically demand a response from those contesting the leadership. That was what happened when David Cameron beat David Davis for the Tory equivalent back in 2005 – a contest overseen, it’s worth remembering, by a defeated leader (Michael Howard) who had the good grace to stick around while the party got its shit together and, at long last, elected not the candidate who best reflected the blinkered world-view of its activists but who most worried its main opponent.

Paradoxically, diagnoses and prescriptions that revolve around particular groups or geographical regions are misleadingly complicated. That’s because they risk leading Labour to do exactly what Jon Cruddas has suggested may have helped lose the party the election in the first place, namely attempting to assemble an electoral coalition by micro-targeting different types of voters, rather than nailing down a narrative that makes common sense to a more nebulous, but ultimately much bigger bunch of people.

As long as the public, and not just the party, sees at least one of the candidates as a credible story-teller, then all is not lost. It may sound cynical to say it, but as David Cameron himself has proved (by cutting taxes and welfare benefits, by “banging on about” Europe and immigration, and by getting rid of all the “green crap”), if the eventual winner looks and sounds the part – and is careful to keep talking about “change” and “the centre ground” – then what they do and say for the next three or four months doesn’t actually have to mean that much anyway.

That said, Peter Mandelson, for all that he, like so many of us, has rushed to judgment, is right to declare that, at the very least, that narrative has to weave together “leadership, economic competence and sense of fair play”. But given what happened last time around and what we’ve seen over the past fortnight, it seems highly unlikely that any of the current runners and riders is capable of going much beyond that formula before the result is announced on 12 September.

[Published online – with this title – at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/24/frighten-the-tories-labour-could-win-again]

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