Despite the sombre context, this summer’s Fabian conference was full of strong ideas for how the left might go forward. And while our speakers promoted a range of options, our delegates also had the chance to express their ideas for how Labour can move forward towards success in 2020.
‘Message’ stood out in delegates’ assessments, above all else. Fundamentally, delegates agreed that the party had some good policy ideas to bring to the table: however, it was poor at communicating these. The sense here is that Labour now needs to develop a coherent narrative promoting a strong, alternative vision for Britain, instead of isolated policies which seem disconnected from one other. As part of this messaging, delegates felt that Labour needs to use more relateable, ‘human’ narratives on the economy (to match Conservative rhetoric on running the national finances like a household budget) to win credence in peoples’ minds.
Furthermore, the ‘negativity’ of Labour’s messaging was also stressed, suggesting that while the party was good at noting injustices such as zero-hours contracts or the bedroom tax, it failed to provide a positive alternative for society. As delegates noted, in 2020 it will not be enough to say simply ‘good news: we are not the Tories’. The public will need a clear understanding of how Labour offers a positive alternative to rival the Conservative ‘legacy’ of a strong and stable economy.
The lack of credibility of Labour’s leadership factored highly in delegate discussions, despite the regret many expressed over this point. While much of the discussion centred on Ed Miliband’s personal unpopularity amongst swing voters, the party’s wider leadership failings were also emphasised.
Looking forward to 2020, delegates suggested that the party needs to break down its centralisation, to ensure that key policy messages come not only from the Leader’s Office, but from other key ministers. This more participative model might generate constructive debate alongside consensus within the party, and would amount to more effective leadership.
3. ECONOMIC CREDIBILITY
This theme pervaded the entire conference, with the key fault line drawn between those who saw Labour as too apologetic for their perceived ‘failings’ (failing to defend Labour’s spending choices and strong record in government) and those who saw Labour as not apologetic enough to win public confidence. The fear of the former group was that Labour had conceded ground to the Conservatives on economic credibility; the latter was concerned that by dwelling on the past and what was ‘economically right’, Labour was forgetting that public perceptions were more important than economic realities.
Delegates were united in their agreement that Labour needs to build a strong narrative and clear vision of its economic plan in 2020. Labour needs a story of how it plans to grow the economy, particularly with respect to investment and wealth creation. Alongside this, delegates stressed the desire for a green economy strategy and a real engagement with the importance of tackling inequality in 2020.
4. BUILDING A COALITION OF SUPPORT
Delegates argued that in 2020 Labour needs to do more to secure a progressive coalition of support, especially amongst those who need re-engagement such as the young, non-voters, and working class voters, in order to reform the labour movement into a diverse, energising force.
The need to ‘listen to the people we claim to represent’ and engage honestly with difficult issues like immigration and English nationalism was noted, in order to reengage with Labour’s traditional core vote. Success in 2020 will also mean building a more inclusive mass movement all round, engaging Green voters and disillusioned Liberal Democrats too. It is hoped that these would build the sort of bold, clear, exciting and inspiring centre left to mobilise support in the next election.
Interestingly, delegates felt less strongly about Labour’s policy platform than they did about its messaging, communication and relationships. It was generally felt that the party had a strong offer in the election which was thwarted by other factors.
However, there were some recommendations:
- On housing, it was felt the party needs to offer an alternative solution, especially in relation to local action;
- On inequality, the party needs to recast arguments around fairness and wealth, to go beyond talking about ‘aspiration’;
- On health, the party must campaign more strongly for ‘whole person care’, especially strengthening its offer on mental health;
- On jobs, it was felt the party needs to do more on the subject of job security, going beyond promises of increasing the National Minimum Wage to engage with workers who are self-employed or on a range of insecure contracts. It was also felt that the party needs to move beyond focusing on getting people on contracts, to considering the quality of employment in the economy, not only in terms of wages but in terms of quality of life and career trajectory;
- On the constitutional settlement, delegates argued the need for Labour to assert a ‘positive identity’ and offer both in the context of the EU referendum (promoting a distinct Labour ‘yes’ case), and of Scotland and the devolved nations;
- On education, it was felt like Labour’s offer was hardly distinct from the Conservatives, and that the party needs to do more in exposing the real problems around free schools.
Labour faces a considerable but by no means insurmountable task, requiring a reconceptualisation of the purpose, methods and image of the party: whoever secures Labour’s leadership in September would be wise to follow our delegates’ advice.