The current contest for the Labour leadership is often seen as a battle of Momentum vs Moderates, or “The Membership” vs MPs.
These characterisations are over simplistic, of course, but they also fail to recognise that the ultimate arbiter in the future of the Labour Party is the public.
A failure to recognise this means that the outcome of the current internal battle will only be a short term “win” for whoever prevails. Jeremy Corbyn in particular has shown little interest in a strategy, argument or organisation aimed at general voters and not just his base. Unless he quickly develops this, even if he “wins” this summer, his victory will be relatively short-lived. His, and our, real mandate comes from the public ballot box.
Don’t mistake this, however, for a plea to move to “the centre”, whatever that is today. It is about being relevant. We must use our values as our guiding light (and not make some of the mistakes of the past) and understand how they apply to today’s economy, today’s society and today’s needs. For the entire Labour Party, not just our next Leader or subsequent leaders, we need new thinking and a new approach to making this a reality. There needn’t be (and shouldn’t be) compromise between our values and winning elections, that is a false choice, but we must be relevant.
For me, this has been where Jeremy has fallen short and it was brought home during the EU referendum campaign. There has been much debate about how much Jeremy did or didn’t do during the campaign. Activity is not the test. The test is about making impact, moving and leading the debate. To do this, your starting point is relevance. This is where we went wrong in the EU debate. Labour’s only argument was about trade union rights, an important issue to a small group of people, but it was not the discussion that was happening around the kitchen table or school gates, which largely focused on economic security and immigration. If you want to make an impact or be heard, you must be addressing the concerns people have otherwise what you say goes unnoticed. Unfortunately, when it came to the biggest decision of my lifetime, the Leader of the Labour Party and the Official Opposition went unnoticed.
So the questions we must address going forward should be those at the front of people’s minds, the big challenges the country faces. The good news for the Labour Party is that these are things where it’s our values that are needed: security in work in an increasingly insecure economy; reducing inequality at the bottom and top; education that equips our young people with the skills they need in the new, digital world; market intervention where markets are increasingly failing; and so on.
The longer we are talking to each other, either reinforcing the base or engaging in internal warfare, and not applying our values to today’s Britain, the heavier price we will ultimately pay with the public. That’s the real test of leadership. The sooner we recognise this the better.
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