On 23rd February 2017 Labour became the first party in opposition to lose a by-election since 1982. That is a disastrous result, and it should have never happened.
Three years from now Labour will regain Copeland and take this country in a fresh direction, forming a government that will be remarkable in both 20th and 21st century history.
But only if they learn the lessons from Copeland.
Where it went wrong
A Labour campaign predicated on a message of saving public services presents a strong foundation, but without a decisive and eye catching economic message it will often not be enough.
Labour will win seats like Copeland, Stevenage, Bolton West, and Midlothian by rooting their argument in the day to day reality of those struggling to get by and those who are worried their children will grow up worse off than them.
You rebuild trust, by pointing to a new destination, a promised prosperity that everyone has an investment in. Ordinary people in this country will reject austerity if they see the apparatus to resist it in the hands of those ready to use it.
There is only one way to make Labour that party – and that is to support a candidate and a set of ideas that have never strayed from that path.
In Jeremy Corbyn and the new politics we have that.
But things will have to change if people are to be convinced.
In Copeland voters were unsure, and though many stuck with us because they understand the fundamental truth that under a Tory government they and theirs suffer, they needed to see a greater clarity of purpose from Labour to become positive in that belief once again.
A question many campaigners in Copeland heard repeatedly was ‘what are Labour for?’ or alternatively phrased as ‘who are Labour for?’.
The answer has never changed. I’ll let Eugene Debs say it better than I:
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
Labour are not against meritocracy, we are not against the accumulation of wealth – what we are against is privilege and the obscene unaccountable amassing of wealth at the expense of the wider society. If we can convince voters of that I believe we can recast the shape of this society for all.
Our message must now move away from the protestation of the banner and bawl, to a clear and relentless strategy of popular alternative that can address the desire of ordinary communities to prosper again.
It must be the case that by 2020 a significant number of voters who have turned their heads away from Labour since 2010 are able to say – Labour are for me, Labour are for mine.
In approaching Brexit realistically we have taken the first step along that path, and it was my impression that voters in Copeland respected us for that even if they fear what is to come.
There was a time that people would reluctantly accept the closure of a factory in Birmingham or Cardiff because it was part of the maturation of the British economy. They pushed local concerns aside for the betterment of a central driving force, and expected to be rewarded down the line.
Why did Brexit occur? Well, that reward never came.
Quite simply many people are poorer than they were. It’s no good telling ordinary workers that 100s of millions have been lifted out of poverty by globalisation when well paid technical jobs in their area have become rarer than an original idea from the Liberal Democrats.
We lost Copeland for not dissimilar reasons. We were more interested in us than them. The squabbles of Labour over the concerns of the working people of this country.
Here are a few ways we can rebalance that.
One thing that did come up in Copeland is that Labour are not seen as a party proud of Britain.
Does this mean we should adopt nationalistic/patriotic rhetoric at every turn? No.
What we need is to be proud. Proud in what we are and who we seek to represent. What is patriotic about working in the interests of the minority as the Tories do? If there is any patriotism left in the Palace of Westminster it is represented by the Labour Party, not by those who would seek to defund entire regions so they can polish the taps in the citadel.
The new pride in nation should not be of culture, or warfare – but pride in the fact that we can say people in Britain do not starve, people in Britain do not go homeless, and people in Britain born into the worst circumstances around are able to be the last in their families to do so.
No waving of flags will ever make a Tory a patriot. They want nothing more than to take your money and send it abroad, to feather the nests of the mega rich, in the vain hope it will give them a seat among the global elite.
Enough with the cultural nationalist rhetoric of UKIP, the SNP, and the Conservative Party – let us forge a new national identity that challenges this country to grow our communities over the next decade and make certain that the trajectory for inequality is always downwards. If we can promise that, and make people believe we can achieve it, then this party can go anywhere.
Had that blueprint been more obvious in our recent Brexit battles in Parliament I believe we would have won in Copeland and romped home in Stoke.
Activism will never be replaced as a fundamental necessity of political struggle. It is what sets the two major parties in this country out from their competitors.
Forgetting my native disdain for the Tory party, they are a campaigning force who will hit the streets and defend their ideas – this we must respect, yet they are no match for Labour on their day. The Liberal Democrats, UKIP, and the Greens are simply not engaged at the same level. Their electoral appeal reflects their effort on the ground, and from this there is a lesson we can learn.
We must never fall into the trap of withdrawing from locales, leaving them to be adopted by another. I saw this brutal reality first hand in Scotland between 2014-16. I saw some of it again in Copeland when a number of men in a local pub said to me “Well where have you lot been for the last 30 years?”. That wasn’t hyperbole – this was the first time they had encountered Labour campaigners. We cannot let that go on.
It was Labour’s new mass membership, inspired to join by Jeremy Corbyn, that enabled Labour to knock on every single door in Stoke a couple of weekends ago. This is how we will build a movement that can win the next general election. I fear without it things could have been a lot worse in Copeland.
We must accept that there are those who are detached and disinterested by the prospect of campaigning. Labour can do better for these people by offering alternative engagements that can contribute to the overall electoral push, but these people must also reflect on their key role in a historical conflict.
For all the conjecture about whether Jeremy Corbyn can ever lead this country there is one consistent truth – if you do not turn up and fight, your hopes will be crushed under foot ruthlessly, and the Tories are the most ruthless collective force in this land. If we are not willing to stand up to their assault on Labour communities, and the communities we seek to speak for, we are not worthy of our title of opposition.
Labour must use increased activity to expand our support in the industrial/service sector/self-employed working class many of whom remain as yet untouched by the message we champion. That’s a root back to power, and a pathway to relevance in a rapidly changing economy.
How can it be that an area such as Clacton-on-Sea is a straight fight between UKIP and the Tories despite having some of the worst deprivation in all of England? . How can it be that a city the size of Glasgow, built on the very hardcore of the British working class be close to becoming a no-go zone for Labour politics? How can it be that Labour do not have a single MP in the South West outside of Bristol when Cornwall suffers such poverty? And how can it be in Copeland that we had nothing to say to those who did not work in urban areas?
Let’s never make that mistake again.
Public and Party
It is not our economic message, but our social one that is failing to bring us to the attention of our traditional voters and beyond.
That is a message introduced, supported, and clung to by the last vestiges of New Labour and it simply will not cut it. We cannot speak to the realities of British politics without coming to a working settlement on immigration that recognises why it is this country voted to leave the European Union. We will not get a hearing from the quiet majority if we attach ourselves inexorably to the identity politics of university debating clubs – whilst ignoring the identity politics that built our party up from nothing – class.
We must continue to hold the key support we have maintained amongst the young middle class, and start to speak to rural communities about the industries they are dependent upon. Our narrow view of class as steel and smoke simply will not do. Simple as it was, and at times overly so, Bernie Sanders harnessing of the 99% vs the 1% took an eccentric Senator from Vermont to running the most heavily backed US presidential candidate in history close in the Democratic race for the White House.
In Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Kate Osamor, Ian Lavery etc we have authentic and relatable voices who can buttress our image as a party of the people. If the new move towards a more populist message is to be fulfilled, it must be MPs like this alongside Corbyn who are speaking for the 99% against those who would seek to send Britain back into a feudal age.
That gives rise to perhaps the most important point. There must be no more talk of coups, deselections, and resignations. The most common reaction the team I was with heard on the doorstep in Copeland was “why should I vote for a party whose MP stepped down after less than two years because he didn’t fancy it anymore?” and those people were right – why should they?
Every single Labour MP is a delegate for their community who has pledged to speak for the voiceless in Parliament. This is not a sabbatical, and you are not a celebrity. You will stand and fight with those people until they say no more at a general election.
And for those of us who play a supporting role, we must fight, fight, fight – until there is nothing but the final step in front of us. If we cannot garner the respect of the people of this country through the media, we can take hostage their attention through our effort. We must all believe that in order to succeed.
If our MPs cannot muster that belief they must return to their constituencies and look around at what may befall such a place if the Tories take it over. They should require no further motivation than that.
The ground war has long since been surpassed by the air war in electoral importance, and we are losing it by some distance.
There is no perfect left wing government. Realising this is a journey Corbyn’s supporters like myself will have to make. It’s a journey we will have to take the centre on with us. In order to do that we will have to support this remarkable man to the hilt.
Far too often I see figures in the more explicitly socialist wings of the party openly discussing quite obvious rumour articles churned out by our opponents with all seriousness. Rarely a day goes by when I do not take note of someone giving credence and attention to the opinion of Owen Jones – a pseudo-journalist working for a newspaper that receives about as much attention from the dispossessed in our society as a Contemporary Art Installation in a Humanist community centre.
I never see the Tories or the SNP doing this – so why should we? Discipline is everything. The media will treat us seriously when everyone from the newest volunteer, to the General Secretary start acting seriously. As one man said to me at the Oldham by-election some time ago “You can be weird, wild or owt in politics – just don’t be a mess”.
We must squash this desire to self-mutilate. We are our own worst enemy on a weekly basis. If you think returning to a New Labour approach of economic liberalism and social patronisation is a terrible idea then you should never ask yourself ‘When would be the best time for Corbyn to go?’ ever again. The only answer is, when he’s finished the job of changing the course of destruction this country is on.
Was Corbyn hated on the doorstep? Certainly not. Corbyn has an enviable narrative – one I fear the Labour Party have not adequately celebrated. There is no one like him in UK politics whatsoever, and that is a unique point of interest and division that we must exploit mercilessly.
The reason Corbyn became leader in the first place is exactly the same reason we must look to in order to make him Prime Minister. He has continuously been on the right side of history.
Were there people with reservations about him? Certainly. It is our job to convince them.
For what it is worth, and though it may be dismissed, those I have met who were unsure about Corbyn were also unsure about Miliband. We can learn the lessons of the 2015 campaign to make sure the result is different this time.
Will Labour turn the polls around by the end of the year? Probably not.
Will Jeremy Corbyn become the next Prime Minister? I believe so.
Yet it will require a continuous and targeted campaign of popular appeal that sets Labour against vested interests in favour of defending the concerns of working people and those just managing to get by.
Will we need the media on side to do it? We certainly should not give up on that desire, but we must also set ourselves against their pettiness.
Were the media ever on the side of those whose heating was shut off in the middle of winter?
Were the media ever supporting us when we begged a foolhardy government to stop bombing poor people in Iraq on the whim of a Texan fantasist?
And the media won’t be on the side of the people of Copeland when the West Cumberland hospital is finally closed.
But we were…and so was Jeremy Corbyn.
That won’t be forgotten.