Barry Sheerman: Labour must offer a positive alternative

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IT is easy for Labour to despair of the General Election result or try to explain it away, blaming the media, the messenger or our opponents. However the truth is clear: Labour’s message simply did not reach a broad enough range of people.

Millions across the country wanted to vote Labour but we made it hard for them, to do so by failing to present a vision that felt relevant to their lives: while we were good at talking about taxing the mega-rich and tackling zero-hours contracts, we felt much less comfortable talking about the middle income majority in between; while we boldly spoke out against the booming inequality and rank unfairness under the coalition, we were much less able to present a positive vision to people
who work hard and want to deliver the good life for themselves and their families.

We are, therefore, presented with an opportunity: the Tories might be crowing at their first majority in over 20 years but many millions more never voted for the Conservative Party. The near-total Lib Dem collapse presents Labour with a real opportunity to be a genuine opposition in the South: many of the seats the Lib Dems capitulated to the Tories were, ironically, won from Labour last decade on an ostensibly progressive ticket.

Likewise, it is my earnest hope that Scots will see through the charade of the SNP’s supposedly left-wing credentials and their obsession with political independence to the exclusion of almost anything else and whatever answer they receive from the Scottish public, but it will be a long road back to rebuilding the party in Scotland and winning back the trust of the Scottish people.

The Labour Party is down but not out: the buzz surrounding speculation for the next leader is testament to that. Having chosen a longer timetable, announcing our new leader just before our party conference in mid-September, we have a great opportunity to set a new, bold direction for the party rather than just a choice between a range of the usual suspects.

More than half the current contenders are talented, dynamic women: Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh and Yvette Cooper. Compare that to the Liberal Democrats, who do not have a single female MP left, and to the Tories, where just a fifth of their MPs are women – less than half the proportion that went to private school. If we can take this opportunity to have an open and fair contest and a frank discussion about the direction of the party and the future of our country, we can show the country the best of what we’re about and show that we have truly moved on from the divisions of the past.

We won unprecedented majorities at the turn of the century by building a broad coalition of support right across the country, from Dover to the Western Isles, and we can do so again. The scale of our defeat, and the prospect of an upcoming leadership election, offers a once in a generation chance to realign and renew the Labour Party, both in terms of its offer to the public and the way it operates.

The truth is that all major political parties are in danger of being increasingly obsolete in the 21st century, with eroded membership bases and processes ill-suited to the internet age. Our message too needs to be fresh and progressive, one that presents a positive alternative agenda that lets those who want a better future for their children know unequivocally that we applaud their aspiration, focusing particularly on my great passion: the transformative impact of education on people’s lives.

We need to win back people’s trust on the economy by persuading them that we will not be profligate with the public finances. We need small businesses to know that we are on their side, that we support wealth creation and are proud of this country’s great entrepreneurs. We need to defend the very real achievements of the Labour movement: the hospitals and schools we built, the millions we lifted out of poverty, the open, tolerant society we helped to create and the renewed focus on inequality introduced since 2010.

I have always believed this country has a clear progressive majority: in the last election, just like in 1992, millions of people across the country voted Tory, not because they truly believed in the regressive values of Conservatism, but because they felt they had no real alternative. The Labour Party can, and must, provide that positive alternative agenda this country desperately
needs.

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield.