Austin Mitchell: Divided Labour must get back to basics to win

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
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LABOUR’S conference was a joy. A matey, boozy reunion with old friends and lots of new ones, a chance to catch up on lives, policies and gossip and to enjoy good company. But that’s the social side. The political is more important and that’s been like living in a babbling bubble because Labour is living in fantasy world trying to escape political reality.

Speaker after speaker announced that Labour will do this, that and the other, as if the party was about to step into power tomorrow to change the world when it is further away from it than it has ever been. Indeed its chances of winning have been further set back by the plethora of policies and the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, a marvellous campaigner on a hundred issues, but no leader.

That failure has been compounded by the rank and file members who’ve seized power in the party and damaged its prospects by loading it down with too many policies to be credible. They believe that by multiplying commitments you multiply support. In fact you not only divide it but bemuse electors who want only a few basic policies on the issues that affect their lives: jobs, health, housing and education.

People want secure and better lives and good prospects for their kids, not grandiose projects like HS2, 3 or 4, endless squabbles about socialism, nuclear weapons and the European Union. They don’t want Britain to be a world policeman to try improve the lot of people in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq or other places they don’t particularly care about and aren’t likely to go to on holiday.

Labour is a party at war with itself. The MPs dislike the leader because they think he’s taking the party away from the centre ground where elections are won. The rank and file hate the MPs as self-serving betrayers of socialism and the leader appears incapable of bringing this squabbling mass into the state of unity necessary to win elections because everyone feels there is a plot against them.

The world has changed but Labour hasn’t realised it and is still living in an age when 90 per cent of the people voted for one or the other main parties, when allegiances to a party were inherited and strong and electors were prepared to vote for a pig if their party put one up. Those days are as dead as Kier Hardie.

Today fewer than two-thirds support the two main parties, allegiances are looser and there are more floaters up for grabs. People are voting as consumers, not as conditioned loyalists, and what was once a powerful mass movement has become a vehicle for bright middle class kids on the make, all to many of whom follow the Tony Blair path by using Parliament as a stepping stone to higher things and bigger money.

Neither side of the warring tribe understands this. The rank and file think the party needs to be more radical to enthuse a huge working class voice and bring it out to vote, but in fact the working class has shrunk and the middle class is much larger, all too easily frightened of change, radicalism, the left and resentful of scroungers, beneficiaries and those who they think have chosen dependence as a lifestyle rather than helping themselves.

On the other hand, the MPs take the working class vote for granted and think that the party should reach out to the aspirational middle class, so the policies are diluted.

In concentrating on softening its approach, diluting the drive to equality and prettying up to win southern and middle class votes, Labour is losing the support of those hit by globalisation, immigration, austerity and de-industrialisation. They feel neglected and left behind.

The warning symptoms appeared earlier in Ukip voting and became a loud cry when Labour supporters in Scotland deserted en masse to the SNP, a warning of what could happen in the North unless it gets a fairer deal. It became a scream in the referendum when a third of Labour’s former supporters voted against the party’s policy on Europe. Labour clearly has some catching up to do. It is no use wishing away the Brexit vote and denouncing those who voted for it as racists, nationalists and xenophobes.

Living in a bubble, either in Westminster or Liverpool, isn’t going to work in this changed world. Mass parties representing great blocks of the population are dying. That damage won’t be repaired by giving power in the party to the left, or by the blandishing that the MPs prefer. The effort to bring out a mass working class vote won’t work any more because there isn’t one to bring out. With electors voting as consumers and looking for a “best buy”, Labour can only win if it goes back to the basic problems of the people: health, housing, full employment and wellbeing.

Austin Mitchell is the former Labour MP for Grimsby.