You can’t expect people to vote for you in an election but not tell them why

Being ‘under new leadership’ is not enough to successfully contest an election. Let’s stop parachuting candidates in and put grassroots campaigning at our core

John McDonnell@johnmcdonnellmp
Saturday 08 May 2021 18:41
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Keir Starmer says he is ‘bitterly disappointed’ with election results

The day after an election is like the morning after a heavy night partying.

Bleary-eyed, the party-goers are forced to wake up to the reality of what has occurred.

For the Conservatives, the adrenalin of success will still be pumping but the reality of what they now face will be dawning on them.

In the Brexit voting seats like Hartlepool that they have taken from Labour, they now have less than three years to meet the extremely high expectations they have raised in these communities. 

People will be expecting not just jobs but well paid, quality jobs. 

They will be expecting to see their public services like the NHS, social care and education fully funded to meet the high standards of service they now demand.

So far, the solution to meeting raised expectations in these areas has been straightforward, old fashioned pork-barrel politics, in which public money has been blatantly allocated to the constituencies of Tory MPs and Tory mayors.

The dilemma Johnson now faces is the scale of the resources that will be needed to buy off these areas given that he is loath to increase taxes on the rich and he’s aiming to reduce government borrowing. 

The anger felt by many in these communities that made them change past voting behaviour and vote Conservative was because they believed that they were being taken for granted and ignored. 

This resentment will be nothing like the reaction the Tories will be on the receiving end of, if or when they fail to deliver on the grandiose promises of Boris Johnson.

The Conservatives also no doubt woke up to their recurring nightmare of Scottish independence. Boris Johnson is anathema to many Scots. That is why he never personally campaigned in Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon may not get her majority, but will likely claim she has a mandate for a referendum. Polls on independence are 50-50, and Johnson will have to tread a fine line or risk becoming an even greater recruiter for the independence cause. 

Having already undermined the standing of the Ulster Unionists with his Brexit protocol, it’s not going too far to predict that Johnson in all his reckless glory could be the man that engenders the break up of the United Kingdom. 

Labour will emerge from the elections with one of the worst political hangovers it has experienced in recent decades. As the election results receive a more sober assessment, basic questions will inevitably be asked.

In particular, how could anyone seriously believe that a political party can successfully contest an election with no policies and solely on the basis of a slogan: “Under new leadership”?

It’s certainly a novel and courageous approach verging on Daliesque levels of surreal to go into an election asking people to vote for you but not telling them why. 

Where Labour candidates did stand on a clear policy platform and a record of policy delivery in Wales and in our cities, they performed well and won. 

There has been much talk of identity politics taking over from past party loyalties. The Labour Party was founded and grew on the basis of it being rooted in communities across the country. It has been the beneficiary of identity politics. 

Supporting Labour was for many part of your identity as a northerner, a Scot or a Brummie. In places like Liverpool, this remains the case for many proud scousers. The link between place, community and party wasn’t broken in some areas by Brexit or Scottish nationalism. It was the product of years, especially under New Labour, of a tin-eared party treating people in these areas like lobby fodder expected to vote for anyone or anything Labour put before them.

The parachuting of Peter Mandelson into Hartlepool as its Labour MP was just one example of this crass style of disrespectful politics. Labour’s way back is perfectly achievable, but it has to be on the basis of learning the lessons of these elections fast.

First, never again should Labour send candidates naked into a campaign without a policy programme capable of describing the society we aim to create. Keir Starmer should adhere to the pledge he made in his leadership campaign that Labour’s last manifestos would be the foundational policy programme that he would build upon.

Second, the party is at its best when it is working consistently at the heart of the local communities we seek to represent and from which we recruit and select our candidates for elected office. Let’s have no more candidates parachuted in and no more selections fixed for favoured candidates.

Instead, let’s become the member-led, community party again with community organising and grassroots campaigning at the core of our organisation and activities.

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and former shadow chancellor

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