With the dust settling on the Conservative’s dramatic election victory thoughts are now turning to who will win Labour’s leadership race and, perhaps more fundamentally, what social democracy means in a post-industrial, post-Blair Britain.
A scan of the electoral map vividly illustrates the electoral catastrophe suffered by Labour in Scotland. The central belt, once bright red, is coloured SNP-yellow, marking a political earthquake not seen in generations. A deep reading of results in England is no less disturbing. In the north, Labour lost working-class support to UKIP, their majorities there propped up largely by ex-Lib Dems. Meanwhile, in the south, Labour, was unable to attract votes from wavering Tories. The party now holds just a handful of southern seats, largely thanks to strong local support for incumbent MPs, like Ben Bradshaw in Exeter and Andrew Smith in Oxford East.
The 2015 campaign rested largely on Douglas Alexander’s ‘35 percent strategy’ and a conscious effort to appeal to Labour’s core vote. In turn policy became focused on supporting the society’s most vulnerable, without the kind of ‘retail offer’ that had been so prevalent during the New Labour years. This strategy clearly failed, undone not only by poor messaging and leadership, but a fundamental misreading of the desires of the British people. Labour now face the problem of how to reconcile support in areas and amongst groupings that seem more disparate than ever.
How, for example, can Labour win back the votes of working class voters in, say, Hartlepool who have concerns around immigration and the EU, while still maintaining their metropolitan support, for whom the free movement of labour is desirable? Similarly, how, after a campaign triangulated around the ‘zero-zero economy’ (zero hours contracts propping up companies that pay zero tax) can Labour win back the support of aspirational voters and the business community?
A number of names have already emerged as leadership contenders. Of these Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham are perhaps the best known. Cooper was one of the famous ‘Blair babes’, but despite an almost twenty year career in public office there is little indication of what she really stands for. Burnham meanwhile is known as a favourite amongst the trade union movement and leftist backbenchers, like Ian Lavery. Although he has emerged as a front runner, he is yet to outline his ideological vision for the future and has been characterised as something of a political chameleon.
The challenge to Cooper and Burnham comes from Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh. Although shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna had declared his intention to stand, he withdrew his candidacy, sparking speculation that he has struggled to gain sufficient support amongst MPs. Kendall is widely seen as a rising star within the party. Aligned to the Blue Labour movement and something of a reformer, she has publicly suggested that the last Labour government overspent, a clear pitch to more hawkish tendencies. Creagh is, at this stage, something of an outsider, prompting suggestions that her key goal is career advancement.
For many Labour supporters, Dan Jarvis’ decision not to stand has been something of a disappointment. Jarvis, an ex-British Army officer and OBE, would have represented a break from the Oxbridge oligopoly that has dominated British politics in recent years. Although publicly educated, his experience as an MP in Barnsley and upbringing in Nottingham had led many to suggest that he could appeal to a broad spectrum of British society.
Umunna’s withdrawal and Jarvis’ decision not to stand can be taken at face value, however, a certain scepticism lingers alongside a belief, even in ardently Labour circles, that reaching the 40 percent of the electorate needed to win a majority in 2020 is simply beyond the party. The big-tent politics pioneered by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson no longer seems to resonate and the rivalries within the party are severe. Though this could simply be a case of post-election blues, the question of what Labour means in an age where workers aren’t unionised and capital is fluid remains.
After a difficult five years in opposition, there are few Labourites who will be relishing the challenge to come. Divided, without a clear ideological position and losing votes across a range of demographics it will take a bold and visionary leader to unite the party and move them onto more fertile ground. While circumstances could change in their favour, it seems that whoever becomes Labour’s leader will have an uphill struggle on their hands if they are to once again form a government.