I left Labour HQ after the 2017 election - will my party ever learn from its 'glorious defeat'?

Since 2010, Labour has talked and talked. It needs to start listening

Paul Ovenden
Wednesday 18 December 2019 11:19
Keir Starmer says Labour should not 'oversteer and go back to some bygone age'

Two and a half years ago, I was in Labour HQ when the clock struck 10pm and the general election exit poll dropped to a mixture of surprise, confusion and relief. From one corner of the office, where Jeremy Corbyn’s staff huddled away from their Labour colleagues, came cries of joy and celebration. It seemed an unusual response to an election defeat but, I suppose, an understandable one, if the world has told you that you are about to get a hiding.

It is always best to be a magnanimous winner. But in politics, it’s also important to remember that you don’t have all the answers. Victories are fleeting, never complete or conclusive. Immediately after the election, briefing emerged that Labour HQ’s defensive targeting was what had denied Corbyn the keys to Number 10.

Rather than bringing together different parts of the party in order to build on the 2017 result, highly experienced and skilled people were chased out of Southside. I knew that I couldn’t hang around for the victory lap, and quietly resigned the job I loved. The seeds of Labour’s recent defeat were not sown on Thursday night. Rather, the way Labour reacted to 2017 both publicly and in private incubated it.

Somehow, the only lesson Labour learned from 2017 was that we needed more of the same. The economic argument had been won. Concerns about Corbyn’s electability were dismissed, stories about his and his associates’ past irrelevant. Any voices of dissent – Labour MPs, councillors, voters – were either treacherous or behind the times. I sat in meetings where shadow cabinet members breathlessly talked about being on a “permanent campaign footing”, about “demanding” an election from government, going into one with a more radical manifesto than ever before. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

Labour set up a summer tour of 60 marginal seats and claimed that no Tory seat was safe anymore. Last Thursday, Labour ended up losing 60 seats. The so-called “99% strategy” – destined to go down in infamy – led to one gain, in Putney. The red wave washed up limply; the red wall is now rubble. Future generations will look back on this period and wonder how a party led by the least popular opposition leader in history could show such hubris.

Since 2010, Labour has talked and talked. It needs to start listening. For the last decade, the picture we have been painting of the country we want to govern has been bleak, loveless and lifeless. We sometimes sound like we can’t think of anything positive to say beyond hoary old stories, like a pub-bore reminiscing on their youth. We have made it sound like only a Labour government can save this nation’s wretched souls from a life of despair enforced by shadowy elites. In fact, Labour is at its best when it recognises the fiercely independent streak that runs through the citizens of this country – after all, what’s the point in trying if the odds are stacked against you?

Where Labour has correctly identified areas where the government can make a difference, such as the decline of our towns, we have too often only been able to talk about them in abstract and stereotypical terms. The anxiety that afflicts provincial life in this country is acute in the suburbs of the southeast as well as the industrial parts of north Wales. But telling people you’ll give them loads of free stuff – whatever you think of the individual policies – does nothing to alleviate the much bigger worries of those who feel that they, to quote Tony Soprano, “came in at the end. The best is over”. We had no coherent story to tell, no rhyme or reason. Our offer was a blast of noise; a bucket of paint thrown at a wall. We convinced no-one but ourselves.

What now? Too much of the discussion has already become reductive: “Let’s go again, but this time with a northern accent”. This begs the question: what will it take for Labour to treat voters with respect, to realise they see through this stuff? The next Labour leader should be the person who offers the most compelling vision of how Labour can speak for Britain again. The person who can gain trust, whose history isn’t an immediate turn-off to swathes of voters. The leader who makes people want to put them in Downing Street. There is cause for optimism: Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips have both hit the ground running with articles and interviews that grasp the realities facing us. Keir Starmer is the name who comes up time and time again with the public. Rebecca Long-Bailey is an able torch-carrier for Corbynism.

Ultimately, what Labour needs now is to stop lecturing, browbeating and claiming we won the argument, and begin to show humility. We need to meet the public where they are, rather than where we want them to be. They are many and we are few: if we don’t realise that, last Thursday will be the beginning of the end. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Paul Ovenden is a former Labour spokesperson.

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