The weekend has been a great time to reflect on the result of the General Election on both a local and national level. I have been able to reflect on what we as a party did, and in many cases didn’t do, and I think that we have a lot of lessons to learn. Not only for the next election in 5 years time, but more pressingly in the all out Gloucester city elections next year.
In terms of what we did well, I think we had the best candidate that anyone could hope for. Sophy Gardner has been an inspiration and really hands on in her approach to winning this seat. Given her lack of background in politics, she was able to being some common sense to decisions, and also was very happy to go and have difficult decisions when required. I think if I’m honest, we, as a party, failed Sophy both nationally and locally for a number of different reasons.
In reality, we lost the election 5 years ago when Ed Miliband was elected leader. Even now, people ask, ‘would we have lost if David had been selected instead?’ The answer is yes, we would have done for many reasons, but certainly Ed, lovely and charming bloke that he is, was the wrong choice. I think many of the membership also felt cheated because Ed was not really the membership choice, he was pushed through on the power of the Union vote in the electoral college. I had hoped that he would be able to bring together both wings of the party, but we are still stuck on and hampered on “Blairites”, “Brownites” etc. This is not going to help us move on. There was also the simple fact that until the leader debates, he was a media nightmare. I don’t like it, but we live in a fast media time and we have to have someone that will not only be good for Labour, but also inspire people on TV and in the media. I think Ed is brilliant at Q&A, which is probably why the Leader debates worked for him, but the sad fact is that the only real inspiring and passionate speech I saw was his resignation speech, and that had me in tears. If only he could have done that 5 years ago! This was also a driver in the issue of trust. No matter how many times Ed said there would be no deals with the SNP, no one believed him or us. That speaks volumes.
Another reason we lost 5 years ago was the economy and the deficit. Nothing to do with Liam Byrnes letter, but the fact we let the Tories get away with pinning the global recession on us. David Cameron went on for 5 years blaming us, and then when we finally have some rebuttal from our leadership it is too late, it looks and sounds like a blatant lie. We should have been laying out the facts from day 1, not just in Westminster, but in council chambers too. I know I am guilty of hunkering down in Shire Hall when the “no money left” comment was thrown, where as what I should of been doing was fighting back with the facts.
During this election campaign and in the 5 years running up to it, we didn’t have a message of hope. We were up against a propaganda war of fear; fear of an SNP coalition and fear of economic incompetence. We responded in kind with fear of a breaking NHS, bedroom tax, etc etc. We did not offer something that everyone could look at and use as a guiding beacon. The way we got our messages out were also rubbish. There was little or no connection between head office and the grass roots. Before we had policies, we should have been ensuring that our bedrock Labour values were being strongly embodied in our press, our local council chambers and on the doorstep. Then when we had developed policies, to ensure thy were well briefed to our Labour Group leader to use as a backbone of their local manifestos and motions, as well as to the volunteer base, the grass roots, so they had something good to talk about on the doorstep. When the national manifesto was launched, the local one should have been quickly after it, and joined up, but it didn’t come out until a week or so before, and offering some free parking after mid afternoon was hardly the most inspiring approach. I bet very few local members and supporters read both documents, and even fewer inspired by them.
That gets me onto the doorstep. Labour HQ encouraged us all to go and have millions of conversations. Sound fab. But those conversations were all the same, IE: “will you be voting Labour? Did you vote Labour last time?” Well wow, that was motivating. When we engaged Arne Graf, I was hugely inspired because he really hit what I liked to do, IE get hands on in communities and engage, make things happen and really change things. It was a step away from the traditional Labour approach, when residents are wanting to see action rather than rhetoric, it was fab. He even came to Gloucester and ran a workshop here in Quedgeley, which was brilliant. But then HQ quietly got rid of him and re-engaged with knocking on doors having the same crap script. Why would you vote Labour just because I’m asking you if you vote Labour?
It is probably the time to reflect on the voting system. I’m not a fan of PR, because I want to vote for someone to represent me, not get allocated an MP dependent on national vote. But by the same token, many people didn’t seem to recognise that they were not voting for Ed Miliband, they were voting for a local representative. So is that another approach, to have a more Presidential system where we vote for local representative and then elect an overall leader? Best of both worlds perhaps? That leads onto political education, must have more of it in schools and encourage more discussion. Encouraging voting at 16 is great, but also getting people to understand that they can get involved. Perhaps being a member of a party isn’t trendy, but we must get people to engage with us. We talk of the westminster bubble, but there is also a political bubble too, which a lot of people feel is impenetrable. We have to do more to engage with communities (yes I’m back to Arne Graf again).
So, now I have all that off my chest, where do we go from here? Well, we now have a leadership contest which is a massive opportunity for the party. We don’t want to rush (though I understand quite a few people would like us to) we need to get it right. For me, getting it right is not just electing the leader, but having the conversation about what we stand for as a party. We need to accept the fact that Tony Blair is no longer the Prime Minister, the Iraq war happened, and Brown sold the Gold. We have to stop trying to work out what the electorate want and determine what we want. IE what are our values and beliefs that make us a broad Labour movement, and go back to basics in building up our policies. We need to understand that we can represent both Shop Floor workers, small business owner and business leaders by instilling the values of fairness, compassion and honesty up and down the hierarchy, not keep setting workers against bosses all the time.
We should remain proud of the Welfare State and the NHS, but also to make sure it works for all. Its there when we need it, not just in times of hardship but in times of change. But then we should ensure the economic system works for the majority, and that we should be able to live without needing welfare payments when we are in paid jobs. This means getting a fair days pay for a fair days work and businesses getting encouragement to provide sustainable wages to reduce the burden on the state. The NHS should be incorporating all the care systems, from GP to elderly care to ensure good end to end service. The profit elements of GP surgeries and the knock on effects is awful and having damaging effects to places like Kingsway. Most of all, we need to educate residents about just what value the NHS is and how we got here. I think many, myself included, can take it for granted because it is all we have ever known, but comparing us to America, where the majority of bankruptcy is caused by medical bills, really puts things into perspective. Yes we pay more tax to fund the NHS, but we should be proud to do so.
We also should not be scared to keep on the value for money agenda with all public spending. To have a tax burden is fine, but we need to ensure that the money is being used effectively. But by the same token, the cheapest isn’t necessarily the best. We need to appreciate that a better product can cost more, but it’s worth it in the long run. That can apply to a Chief Executive as much as a Highways contract.
Finally, we must appreciate the team. I do keep saying to my wife, that sometimes it’s harder fighting the internal party issues than fighting the Tories. The Labour Party is a diverse movement, with a wide range of skills, capabilities, wants and needs. We need to rediscover that we are a party of people and if we all work together we can achieve amazing things.