Why Labour Needs to Change

Like many on the left, the election result came as a nasty shock to JONATHAN TIMBERS. But despite the desperate outlook, he believes a future Labour government is possible if Labour becomes a very different kind of organisation.

Since the general election results were announced, there has been breast-beating aplenty and much keening from left-wing people; lots of tweets and tearful Facebook messages about the politics of greed and fear; quite a bit of questioning of the conscience and IQ of English voters. Some people are saying they do not expect to see another Labour government in their lifetime.

MIliband resignationBut I think we need to understand that the election results were not the final nail in the coffin of a social democratic Labour Party. They were a reasonable response to a Labour leadership that seemed lost outside its own heartlands – which were not Doncaster or Coventry, but IPPR research paper launch events – and the most adept Tory leader since Stanley Baldwin.

By looking at it this way, it is just possible to see, out of the corner of one eye, the possibility of a future Labour government. But for that to happen, Labour needs to become a completely different kind of organisation.


The most obvious reason the Tories won was the economy. I live in one of the UK’s key marginal seats and unemployment in this constituency is down (or so the Tories claim) to 1.27%. There is a lot of under-employment and desperation hidden by that headline figure but even if it’s not exactly good times, business is growing, slowly.

Nationally, the Tories have pursued a dual economic policy: austerity in public services but Keynesianism in infrastructure and business support. If you check the Planning Inspectorate website, you will see there are a huge number of major infrastructure projects underway, by and large power stations of one sort or another, many of them using renewable energy.

The Tories also appear to have an industrial strategy, which the Labour government couldn’t bring itself to develop for fear of seeming too Old Labour (until the very end, at least, when recession forced it to act). It comes to something, doesn’t it, when the Tories are leading the way with an industrial strategy?

As I was writing this article John Cruddas has pointed out that his policy review was decimated by Labour Party staffers who wrote the manifesto and that the review’s economic alternative had no chance of coming across. As a result, Labour put forward a bits and pieces programme rather than a coherent analysis, and paid the price for doing so. Ultimately, people voted for the party with a clear economic plan. Labour didn’t present one.

Stable government

We’re told the final Tory surge came after the press put the frighteners on about a Labour-SNP government. ‘Vote Ed, get Nicola,’ was the cry.

The Guardian’s John Harris interviewed one working class voter in Nuneaton who had a very interesting perspective. As far as he was concerned, Scottish free prescriptions and higher education were the result of English subsidies and he had no time for the SNP. There was clearly a lot of what Harris called ‘low level grievance’, which the Tories appealed to.

But I think what really frightened people was the thought of having an unstable government. It was widely reported that financial markets were reacting badly to the news that the UK election was unlikely to present a settled winner. With a brittle recovery underway, people voted not so much for a Tory government, but reluctantly for some government – in fact, any government, even if it was Tory.

If you look at it like that, Miliband’s unconvincing declaration that there would be no deals with the SNP perhaps made Labour look worse in the eyes of the electorate – all he was promising was uncertainty. Not that cosying up to the SNP would have helped either. He was in a no-win situation.

Immigration and Europe

The Tories had a stronger line on immigration, which is a key working class concern, and they were always likely to get more out of this area than we could. The Blairite mantra that immigration is good for the economy and people ought to get real and tool themselves up to compete in a global marketplace isn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d say down the pub and expect to leave in one piece.

Labour actually had a pretty good policy on immigration, targeting employment agencies which recruit solely from Eastern Europe, but they rather spoilt it all by focussing on benefits tourism, which underlined the Tory message about benefit cheats.

Labour’s worst failure was on Europe. The Tories offered a referendum on membership but Labour opposed a popular vote on this most pressing of questions. John Mann MP, who has a strong connection to his working class voters in a former mining area, raised the issue of the EU’s freedom of movement provisions (personally, I’d like to see free movement of capital in the mix too) and increased his majority in the process.

Miliband decided that the public couldn’t be trusted to discuss Europe and come to the right decision, or at least that’s how it appeared, and paraded his pro-business credentials by saying he would deny working class people a vote on the issue that most concerns them.

It is very telling that two Labour leadership candidates have come out in favour of an EU membership referendum and one of them, Andy Burnham,  seems to be demanding substantive changes to EU treaty law.

This has to be handled very carefully, though. Central and Eastern European workers are still workers, vulnerable to market forces since the collapse of the Soviet empire, and desperately in need of money. They should be encouraged to settle and local authorities must have more resources to help them become part of British society, with secure jobs and housing. What the left should aim for is regulated labour markets and cohesive communities, not institutionalised xenophobia.


In his resignation speech, Miliband blamed his defeat on the rise of nationalism, but once again he failed to grasp that it was the Labour Party that lost Scottish support, not the nationalists who won it. In doing so, it handed Cameron the election on a plate by making a Labour majority government impossible.

Cameron completely out-manoeuvred Miliband after the referendum on Scottish independence by raising the West Lothian question (ie. Scottish MPs being able to vote on purely English matters when English MPs cannot vote on devolved Scottish ones).

Instead of jumping to the defence of the right of Scottish MPs to have the same voting rights as English or Northern Irish MPs, Miliband seemed to mumble something about the need for a ‘constitutional convention’ (from an academic point of view, he was absolutely correct, but the demand had no political traction).

This compounded the error of campaigning with the Tories in Scotland over the referendum on independence and the scandal of the then leader of the Scottish Labour Party resigning, claiming it had become nothing more than a ‘branch’ of the London office.

This was not the only occasion when Labour’s centralised bureaucracy undermined its own chances of victory, but it was the most spectacular instance of Labour’s internal organisation becoming a liability.

Working class vote

Labour’s bureaucracy played a central role, not only in the alienation of Scottish voters, but in disengaging English working class ones too. To be fair, the situation in England appears to be more complex than Scotland. The working class is highly fragmented and its solidarity (which was rarely ever cast iron) is dissolving fast. This makes it easier for the Tories to exploit working class resentment about people on benefits and immigration, and make it much more difficult for the left to get its message over.

But where Labour’s bemusement with ‘white van man’ was summed up by the infamous Emily Thornberry tweet, Osborne had a special unit devising policies to appeal to the self-employed working class. Apparently, it came up with policies about cheap petrol prices and lower cost hospital parking, especially to appeal to people who didn’t have much contact with the state and relied on driving for their livelihoods.

Cameron’s ‘we are the party of plumbers and roofers’ came out of this cold-hearted but effective ploy. And it worked. The Tories won in part because they used class politics to their advantage.

Labour’s response was Douglas Alexander’s ‘four million conversations’ strategy. If it had actually been about conversations that might have helped, but it wasn’t, and it didn’t. It was about teams of people (referred to patronisingly in party emails as ‘Team Labour’) going out and canvassing.

Occasionally, they might take along a petition or ask people about local issues, but it was a long way from taking a real interest in the community. The term generally used for this activity is ‘voter harvesting’. While canvassing is vital, by itself it will never win an election.

Brought in by Miliband soon after he was elected leader, Arnie Graf tried to get Labour to become a community party. But Alexander got rid of him, dealing a death blow to Miliband’s compelling vision of a Labour Party rooted in community activism.

True, it will take years for Labour to win over people through grass roots campaigning, so perhaps Alexander wanted a short-term fix, rather than a long term solution, as his job was to focus on the election. But what he got was a defeat so comprehensive that he even lost his own seat, so he has plenty of time to reflect now on whether he did the right thing.

The Tories, of course, had the media and a huge advertising budget, and the Labour Party had its membership. They could have made a bigger difference if the central bureaucracy trusted them to campaign in the community. But instead they developed a narrow role for them with as little autonomy as possible, focussing everything on messages from the centre and ultimately on Miliband.


And that, of course is another reason we lost. Miliband did not convince voters in the way Cameron did. Electoral Calculus – one of the polling organisations with some remaining credibility – points out that in the final analysis the Tories won in part because they attracted Labour voters, but Labour failed to win a significant proportion of Tory ones.

Cameron was the Tories’ best asset because he continues to make being Tory acceptable. He comes across as a modern day Baldwin rather than a Thatcher. Unlike Thatcher, he has no ideological baggage. He can be a liberal one day, and authoritarian the next; concerned about plumbers one morning, and then cracking down on welfare ‘cheats’ in the afternoon. Probably the one quote of his which will stand the test of time is his Baldwinesque description of the Anglican faith: ‘it comes and goes – like radio reception in the Chilterns.’

For all the horror that we on the left may feel about policy pronouncements from his majority Tory government, Cameron is not a leather-jacketed Norman Tebbit. As Labour’s Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk said, if people had a choice of who to have a pint with, they’d prefer Cameron to Miliband. And that would probably go for most of Labour’s front bench too.

We need to be clear – Miliband was a feeble but well-meaning leader, but he wasn’t responsible for losing the election. It was the Labour Party itself (its professional staffers, policy wonks and communnications experts) and it won’t win another until it becomes an entirely different, more democratic organisation, which can have a proper dialogue with people, including its members, learn something from them, and change the hearts and minds of the public in the process.



  1. Harry Barnes
    29 May 2015

    Ernie : A great speech from Tommy Sheppard (ignoring his residual nationalism). The question the Labour Party needs to ask itself is “why is he representing the SNP and not us?”. He illustrates that the deepth of the crisis is not just in the PLP, but in what used to be called the “Labour Movement”.

  2. Ernie Jacques
    29 May 2015

    Why Labour lost.

    I urge you to click on the link below and spend just a few minutes listening to the maiden speech of newly elected (SNP) MP for Edinburgh East.

    A brilliant Parliamentary maiden speech and tour-de-force in favour of social democracy, balance and fairness. To my mind it speaks volumes about a Labour Party that has lost is way, its purpose and raison d’etre and why it has been decimated in Scotland. And it’s a speech that apparently is not in the vocabulary of most wannabe Labour leaders who are seemingly afraid to even confront the Tories and mock nasty party claims to have a mandate to implement its (One Nation) cuts agenda.

    One further thought. How dare the northern heathens be so disrespectful as to clap in the Mother of Parliaments? If the SNP force the posh boys & girls – Tory, Labour & Liberal – to modernise … GREAT, I say.


  3. Ernest Jacques
    26 May 2015

    Since Jonathan published his ‘Why Labour Needs to Change’ article, four (no change) seemingly unrepentant Blairites have put themselves forward with a primary focus on appealing to voters with ‘aspiration’ whatever that means.

    Well, at a guess it doesn’t mean being more progressive, anti-austerity or appealing to those at the bottom of the pile and who find themselves, for whatever reason, financially challenged and socially excluded. And, unsurprisingly, all (including stand-in leader Harriet Harman) have given the obligatory signal to the Tory press and to middle England that they are not in the pockets of the trade unions.

    And while all four and many others have been quick to rubbish the Ed Miliband manifesto that they all loyally supported just a few days ago, very few of our leaders in the Westminster village seem to acknowledge that the neoliberalism practiced by the Blair and Brown governments, in which most of them served, was in anyway problematic. Labour governments that embraced the City, light-touch regulation and quantitative easing in a way that provided some short-term economic growth, but at the cost of rolling back the state and obscene levels of inequality, hardship and social exclusion and food banks while the few, big corporations and those with assets and wealth, did rather well.

    Compared to Scotland’s First Minister, the wannabe Labour leaders seem to be political pygmies and very right wing. And none of these self-proclaimed modernisers has anything to say about our democracy and the prehistoric House of Lords. No change there then.

    So for Labour Party members who might like a more social democratic and progressive agenda the choice is no choice insofar as from my (admittedly prejudicial) perspective all four potential leaders are in effectively Tory-lite and will be quite content for the governing party to make the occasional mess, become less popular and to await Buggins’-turn. And happy, no doubt, to become less reliant on trade union money and to become more like the American Democratic Party, funded by corporate donations but as always cloaked in marketing language (spin) which claims that the vested interests of the rich and powerful and our big corporations is in society’s overall interests and that only via trickle-down economics and crumbs from the rich man’s table (not state handouts) can we hope to liberate the aspirant poor and dispossessed from their own poverty and personal inadequacies.

    This is a very Iain Duncan Smith-type perspective which is as old as history and fits nicely with what the Victorian coal owners used to say about children working down the pits, and how regulation blocking child labour and improving working condition would have unintended consequences and deprive hard-working families the right to work and income. But then came trade unions, more government and a welfare state – and see where that got us?

  4. Harry Barnes
    22 May 2015

    Ben: I agree with numbers of your approaches. For instance, considering whether community politics is a better use of our time than ploughing on in the Labour Party or whether we should divert to a body such as the Greens. Working on issues by selecting items pursued by groups such as 38 Degrees could be part of the mix. Going for “Manifestos of Intent” is, however, part of the holding-on-for-now process. It is looking for the candidates to say something or other that we can hang onto in the future or where we can push – when we see an opening for improvements.

    My amendment to Clause 4.2 is probably based on the belief that we will be in it even a deeper after the leadership result is announced. Then we can go out after invariably losing an ideological punch up. A “caring economy” would seem to me to a better term than a get-up and grab dynamic economy.

    I see nothing contradictory about the term “democratic socialism”. It shows a position favouring the socialist values of social equality and participation, which have not fallen into the errors of centralisation and bureaucracy. Although your having to add “left” to “social democracy” might mean much the same as my “democratic socialism”. But the “left” also seems to indicate a need to make sure that you are on the other side of the fence from the former Gang of Four.

    I agree, however, that whatever we mean by our labels, they need explaining in detail. The ground we stand on might not be all that different.

  5. Will
    22 May 2015

    Hi Jonathan

    Many thanks for your overview which I think sets out many of the key points that we need to consider. I think your comments on Labour’s canvassing certainly need more thought and I’ve heard voices nationally and locally wondering about how we can better engage with voters over the long run. It raises a wider point about how Labour might do politics differently focussed on the long term and not just have the next election monopolise party activists’ concerns.

    In response to Harry’s call for the ILP to make some kind of reflection, we are trying to organise a discussion meeting, though we don’t have anything concrete yet. I think we like many people are still digesting the huge task that faces not just Labour but the whole left.

    I rather agree with one commentator who argued that Labour is doing this in all the wrong order – having a debate about leaders before a debate about political positioning and strategy. The choice of candidates looks likely to be pretty narrow and it may fall to ordinary members to inject some diversity into the discussion of options facing the party. (Not blowing our own trumpet too much but we warned last year that the rules for nomination of candidates were likely to result in very restricted fields. We said: ‘OMOV counts for little if there isn’t a strong field of viable (and varied) candidates…The underlying problem here, of course, is the lack of diversity – political and otherwise – in the Parliamentary Labour Party’).

    However, I’d wholeheartedly endorse Harry’s call for candidates to produce some reasonably comprehensive statements of where they stand and this is something I think we should push. In addition to that, perhaps one thing that groups on the left might think about is a series of questions we would ask of any candidates – not their stances on particular policies per se more general questions that might reveal their overall politics and perhaps give us some commitments we might try to hold them to in the future.

    The one that occurs most obviously to me is: ‘Do you think government should seek to reduce inequality? If so, how?’. It’s also an issue on which political and intellectual opinion does seem to have shifted in recent years. Interestingly this is the one point on which Blair conceded criticism of his time in office. If the answer is yes, it opens a lot of centre-left ground. We might think of others.

    Best wishes


  6. Ernest Jacques
    22 May 2015


    The way our Westminster governments (over 40 years) have treated redundant workers and the victims of our industrial past is, for me, incomprehensible and a source of much sadness, great disappointment. And while Labour at local government level has been the source of much compassion, good practice and innovation in helping people retrain and get back into work, at national level they have been badly let down.

    Labour and the Tories before and since have spent many billions on useless welfare to work programmes which have benefited relatively few apart from unscrupulous employers and some private employment agencies and training providers. If a fraction of that money had been spent on good quality college (public) based education, training and business start-up programmes things would have been so very different. Under those circumstances, redundancy and job loss would not be seen as such a frightening prospect and the lives of tens of thousands of working people would have been enriched beyond comprehension and many deprived neighbourhood communities and sink estates would have remained pleasant places to live in.

    But the trouble with many Labour MPs (not all, of course) and especially champagne socialist, like Emily Thornberry MP, is they don’t like or understand the working class or comprehend what it is like to live on the edge or have nothing.

  7. Ben Saltonstall
    22 May 2015

    Harry, I think your idea about manifestos of intent is an excellent one. I am less sure about challenging Clause 4.2 of the party constitution.

    Firstly, it plays into the hands of the right to seem to challenge support for a dynamic economy. Secondly, whilst the clause could make it clearer that some activities need to exist outside the market, subject to democratic challenge, I don’t think overall it’s a bad commitment. Thirdly, it sets us on a path to arcane arguments about documents that only people inside the Labour party really care about.

    Like you, I have been struggling for a while to work out what I am doing in the Labour party. As a result, I took a long hard look at the Green party but was disappointed by its lack of serious thought and political strategy. Personally, as a left social democrat (not democratic socialist, sorry… the term is like compassionate conservative, self-contradictory) my priorities will be to campaign about a renewed EU and to set up a local disability access group. I think community politics is more important than LP politics at the moment.

  8. Jonathan Timbers
    21 May 2015

    Ernie, I agree that the Labour party itself is the biggest advert for how out of touch the party is. Ed Miliband did his GCSEs with the help of Tony Benn and during the election was advised by Stephen Kinnock, Neil’s son.

    Will Straw stood in Darwen and was last heard fuming in the Observer about a person on benefits in a street he canvassed because he was disliked by people on ‘moderate incomes’, who got, he claimed, less out of the system than the non-aspirational benefits recipient.

    Straw – a former IPPR research fellow, who must know a thing or two about evidence-based policy making – didn’t indicate that he actually had a conversation with the person down the street on benefits to see if he was winging it or not, or could just try harder, or was actually in need of the support. But he did suggest that Labour should crack down on people on benefits and respect ‘contribution’ (but gave no commitment to increase support for redundant workers who have paid into the system for years and who must use up their savings to retrain and survive before benefits kick in). It makes me sick.

  9. Harry Barnes
    21 May 2015

    When there were hopes that a minority or coalition government of some sort would emerge after the General Election, there seemed to be a possible way forward for democratic socialists in the Labour Party. Ed Miliband’s speeches and Labour’s manifesto were far from perfect, but they offered something which we could at least work upon even if we only ended up in opposition.

    But given a clear Tory victory, the resignation of Ed and no sign that even a substitute Ed can make it onto the ballot paper for a new Labour leader, matters have taken a desparate turn. We are only being offered differing varieties of Blairism and/or “aspirational socialism” (a conflict in terminolgy). Whoever wins, there does not seem to be much we can try to work upon.

    As under Blair, any varieties of democratic socialism which remain inside or outside of parliament will be marginalised and will be ignored as being “beyond the pale”. Numbers of us put up with this in the Blair years in the hope that time and continual criticism would help to produce a new opening for forms of democratic socialism. But with recent developments such hopes are rapidly passing their sell-by date.

    But as the task for looking for (or building) a democratic socialist alternative to Labour are so daunting, there are still some bits and pieces we can pursue. My favoured tactics at the moment are as follows:
    (a) To press the NEC to get the leadership candidates to issue “Manifestos of Intent” of at least 3,000 word for the membertship to consult before they are issued with ballot papers. These might just contain within them, the odd item that democratic socialists can later press them on and even seek to improve
    (b) To seek amendments to Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution to improve its theoretical vision. For instance, the free market commitment to a “dynamic enonomy” in sub-section two could removed. This effort would not be successful, but it might cause a useful ideological ding-dong at what are otherwise inept party conferences. It would also let us see who stood where.

    Any other ideas would be gratefully received. Whilst I appreciate that the current situation is highly problematic, it would also be good to see an ILP analysis of the current situation. Mine are only the individual rantings of a “Friend of the ILP”.

  10. nick W
    21 May 2015

    We now are in a position of the Party making the same mistakes of the last few years, that is, chasing the popular line-mood of the moment. There is no doubt that Nicola Sturgeon’s effect on the election will make many believe in the line of “well, she did well, the mood is for a woman, let’s pick Kendall”.

    Irrespective of the particular qualities of any of the candidates, the Party chases interest groups and causes. The ideals of decency fairness and justice apply to all interest groups but more importantly apply to all of the citizens of the UK. The frankly frightening reality is that the tories now know they can form the government with the shires excluding the metro areas, and how does the party win over the suburban/shire areas that it will need to ever form a government again? It will never do it if it carries on chasing the popular cause of the moment.

    Perhaps now is the time to realise that not everyone tweets and for a gentle reminder that under 18s don’t actually have the vote, but basic humanity and real beliefs last for at least for the term of a Parliament.

  11. Ernest Jacques
    20 May 2015

    Convincing and coherent post-mortem by Jonathan.

    But I do think the result is also an indictment of our electoral and Parliamentary system that is broken and captured by big-money.

    So the crisis of Labour is also a crisis of a flawed and corrupt democracy where machine (Tammy Hall) politics and nepotism is widespread and routine. A dishonest system which allows career driven wannabe MPs and the favoured sons, daughters and friends of past and existing leaders to be parachuted into safe constituencies and foisted on local people who they know and care little about. So we now have an intake of look-a-like MPs far removed from the world of work and the local communities that they nominally represent. A deeply bastardised internal democratic process that is also reflective of a deeply flawed and undemocratic (first-past-the-post) electoral system and Westminster Parliament that is rooted in the 17th century with its archaic language, costumes and rituals overlaid with sycophancy, political patronage and the Westminster gravy train.

    So last week a triumphant Tory administration was elected with a 12 seat Parliamentary majority on just 36.7% of the popular vote. And while the SNP is hugely over-represented in Parliament, UKIP should have had many more MPs based on the size of its vote.

    And many redundant MPs and ministers will now trot off into the welcoming arms of the lobbyists, the City, big money and the House of Lords. And some (well, many) like Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind didn’t bother waiting for leaving day. Neither did former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling, paid hundreds of thousands yearly by the very banks and financial institutions whose greed and illegality triggered the world-wide financial crisis, the cuts agenda and attacks on the welfare state.

    Some might think that despite flaws our Westminster Parliament is better than most, might care to consider a statement last week by Steve Hilton (David Cameron’s former Director of Strategy):
    ‘Democracy is in crisis: it seems to serve the people no longer, but rather vested interests … (and) a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privileges … (a) democracy in name only, operating on behalf of a tiny elite no matter the electoral outcome.”

    House of Lords Abolition & PR
    The case for devolved government and proportional representation then with a democratic second chamber and strict rules to end to the Westminster gravy train together with a proper one-member one vote, bottom-up internal democracy must, surely, be a prerequisite for change and the rebirth of a Labour Party that reconnects with ands energises its own membership and local people.

    After all, the Scottish Labour Party debacle wasn’t just down to an ineffectual Jim Murphy (and he is) or because the SNP opposition is more middle class focussed and business friendly. It’s been a long time coming but raced out of control once the Labour Party got into bed with the Tories, during the Scottish referendum campaign.

    But now the Tories are in power again, it will be interesting to see who they blame next time the financial system goes belly-up.

  12. Matthew
    20 May 2015

    A thoughtful reflection, Jonathan. This piece from The Observer on Sunday suggests that the work done by IPPR, which formed the background for much of Jon Cruddas’s policy review, was largely sidelined by Miliband’s team – much to the frustration of Cruddas, by the sounds of it. It’s interesting (and somewhat frustrating) to ponder how different the ‘Labour offer’ might have been – and what difference that might have made – if Cruddas’s review had been embraced in full as a coherent narrative and campaigned on with intent and vision. Cruddas also has some revealing things to say about how the ‘community organising’ model of Labour renewal – Arnie Graf and all that – was quietly pushed to one side.

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