Labour could go out of business unless it sheds its backward-looking “cloth cap” image as a party which champions a disappearing working class, according to a new report.
A devastating post-mortem into Labour’s May general election defeat concluded that the party must appeal to people who voted Conservative in “Middle England” to have any chance of regaining power in 2020. It warned against a further lurch to the left, which is likely if the front-runner Jeremy Corbyn wins Labour’s leadership contest on Saturday, saying that Ed Miliband’s leftwards shift since 2010 “failed.”
The study by Policy Network, a modernisers’ think tank, concluded: “Labour was not just narrowly defeated in 2015, it was overwhelmingly rejected by an electorate who no longer trust or respect the party. Underlying all of this is a sense that Labour is a party that does not understand the modern world, wedded to an outdated ‘cloth cap’ image of heavy industry and the impersonal bureaucracy of the public sector. The risk for the Labour Party, like social democratic parties across Europe, is further electoral defeat and, then inevitably, permanent irrelevance.”
Labour leadership: The Contenders
Labour leadership: The Contenders
1/2 Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn started off as the rank outsider in the race to replace Ed Miliband and admitted he was only standing to ensure the left of the party was given a voice in the contest. But the Islington North MP, who first entered Parliament in 1983, is now the firm favourite to be elected Labour leader on September 12 after a surge in left-wing supporters signing up for a vote.
2/2 Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham started out as the front-runner in the leadership election, seen as the candidate of the left until Jeremy Corbyn entered the race. The former Cabinet minister has found himself squeezed between the growing populism of Corbyn’s radical agenda and the moderate, centre-left Yvette Cooper, not knowing which way to turn. It has attracted damaging labels such as ‘flip-flop Andy’, most notably over his response to the Government’s Welfare Bill. He remains hopeful he can win enough second preference votes to take him over the 50 per cent threshold ahead of Corbyn.
Warning that Labour faces an “existential threat,” the report said: “If Labour cannot compete effectively for office and provide a credible alternative to the Conservatives in the fragmented political system which now exists in Great Britain, it will be replaced by another party that can.”
The study, based on polling and interviews with Labour candidates and party workers, was carried out by Lord (Giles) Radice, who wrote a seminal report on “Labour’s Southern Discomfort” after another crushing defeat in 1992, and Patrick Diamond, a former Downing Street aide to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
They warned that Labour’s unpopularity in the Midlands and in southern England outside London “still cripples its chances of returning to government.” In May, Labour won only 12 of the 197 seats in the South East, South West and Eastern regions, and has no MPs in Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
Labour modernisers are worried that the expected election of Mr Corbyn would lead to Labour waging a “class war” that would leave many voters cold.
Lord Radice and Mr Diamond warned: “Labour is today too often seen as an antiquated, class-based party rooted in the past…Labour is perceived as out of touch with the modern age. As its electoral coalition has fragmented, the party’s identity is increasingly past its sell-by date." Describing Labour as “the party of economic incompetence,” they said: “Since the financial crash, Labour has utterly failed to restore its economic credibility with the electorate.”
In a barely coded warning about what a Corbyn-led Labour Party would mean, the authors said: “The voters of Middle England are ready to hear a message from Labour which is open about the hard choices and trade-offs ahead, instead of promising all things to all people while engaging in the futile politics of protest.”
They said: “Labour’s obsession with continuing to identify itself as an exclusively working class party is self-defeating. It reflects a tribal culture of ‘us and them’ politics which, for many years, has been off-putting to centrist, middle income, middle of the road voters whose support is needed if the party is needed to win elections.”
Voting in Labour’s election ends at noon on Thursday. Yvette Cooper’s supporters are increasingly hopeful that her late run will allow her to overtake Mr Corbyn. Andy Burnham, whose team insists is in second place, played the class card in his final campaign speech last night, saying: “Labour need a leader ready to fight the Bullingdon Boys, not Tony Blair and the battles of the past.”
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