Is this as bad as it gets? In 2010, when we scraped just 29 per cent of the vote, Labour’s worst performance for almost a century, we told ourselves it was. It couldn’t get any worse. But five years later, despite the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, only three in ten voters backed Labour and we actually lost MPs. And it wasn’t just in Scotland we went backwards; in England and Wales we lost seats to the Conservatives.
But while we have a mountain to climb to win again in 2020, we can do it.
Election night was a dark night but it also showed how Labour can win again. In Hove, Peter Kyle won a seat from the Conservatives, and in Norwich, Bristol and Wirral we made gains. Labour wins when Labour is at its best: inclusive, progressive, positive and embedded in the local community. Community politics isn’t something that has been invented in the last few years. It is what local CLPs up and down the country have been doing for years.
In 1997 I won my seat from the Conservatives, and I’ve seen off a Tory challenge in every election since. In Exeter we’ve built up our party to have one of the biggest memberships outside London. We have councillors who champion Labour politics street by street, we’ve kept the council Labour, and we campaign year in, year out.
At the last election, on a bad night for Labour, we kept Exeter Labour against the odds, and my Labour majority here trebled.
We do need to do more to support CLPs, to spread best practice, and to build a party that is inclusive. I want to be a deputy leader who is going to focus on the cultural, organisational and leadership challenges that the party faces, especially in areas with no Labour MP, and few councillors. But Labour doesn’t need to throw out the campaigning rule book to enable us to win again.
For a party that aspires to govern for the nation, Labour needs to do much better in the south of England. Yes we face a challenge from UKIP in some seats, and yes we need to take the fight to the SNP, but there is no route for us back to Downing Street that does not go through the south.
We need to challenge the idea that England is natural Conservative territory. It is nonsense. The Tories now hold 60 per cent of the seats in England but at the election they won only 40 per cent of the vote. In fact the Conservatives haven’t for over fifty years won a majority of votes. In the 19 elections since 1945 not once have the Conservatives won more than half the vote in England; but in 12 of those elections they have won more than half the constituencies. England is not naturally Conservative.
English votes for English MPs is a Tory strategy to secure themselves in office with the support of a minority of voters. The electoral system is weighted in favour of the Tories, and I believe we need to address the electoral unfairness that locks too many people out of being able to determine the next government.
It would be a mistake for Labour to respond to May 2015 by seeking to adopt the language and policies of our opponents. I am not in the Labour party to be a milder version of UKIP, nor to attempt to outflank the Tories. Yes we need an immigration system that the public has confidence in, but immigration has made Britain a better country. We should celebrate that. Yes we need a welfare system that works, but we should never use the language of benefit scroungers. Labour doesn’t win by shifting onto our opponents’ territory.
We do though need to open up the political process to people outside the Westminster bubble. If Labour is to win again, as an analysis by the Fabian Society showed, four in five of the voters we need to win over voted Conservative in May. We need to stop treating people who vote Conservative as if there is something wrong with them. Our starting point should be to recognise that we have lost a lot of voters who are good people with good motivations, who share many of our values – but they’ve lost confidence that we have the right ideas to realise those values. That’s what we need to address to win them back.
At the last election we had some excellent policies – our progressive housing policy would have helped the generation stuck in rented accommodation – but too many voters liked what we said, but thought we lacked economic credibility and couldn’t be trusted to govern the country in their name. To win again we need to win back people’s trust; we need to demonstrate we are ready again for power.