You always remember your first time. The first time I felt the unique sickening feeling that comes the morning after a lost election was back in 1992. I was an enthusiastic, and probably insufferable, teenager full of hope and with a lot more hair than I have now. So over-excited at the prospect of a Labour general election victory was I, that rather than just posting my pamphlets through each letter-box I rang each doorbell to alert householders to the new arrival on their doormat, sure that the voters would be as elated as I at the latest propaganda.
How wrong I was. The then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, still my political hero, went down to defeat on a high turnout. The highest turnout, in fact, at a U.K.-wide vote until last night’s EU referendum. The headline I woke to 24 years ago was unequivocal. The Sun, then as now Britain’s biggest selling tabloid newspaper had been so demonstrative in its support for the ruling Conservatives that it was able to declare on its post-election front page in the largest type possible: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.”
Two decades later and that post poll defeat feeling doesn’t get any better. And for Labour supporters there is one inescapable fact this time, to paraphrase The Sun: “It’s Labour Wot Lost It.”
Not the hardworking Labour activists I was knocking on doors with yesterday, not the brave Labour figures, like Harriet Harman, who ignored the orders from on high and put their shoulders to the collective IN campaign wheel. No, the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the leadership—and not just the current leadership.
Labour’s problem isn’t, as Tony Blair once put it, complex, it is simple. It has stopped speaking human. It has failed in the most fundamental duty of a “people’s party”, to look, sound, understand and stand up for the people it seeks to represent. Above all it has forgotten how to lead. It is trapped in a vicious circle. Because Labour appears out of touch it has lost the ability to shape public opinion. You can’t persuade if nobody is listening.
In the early hours as the full scale of the Leave victory became clear there was a flood of texts between party people—each testament to just how much of a vacuum Labour has become. They name checked potential candidates: “will it be Dan, Lisa or Heidi.” Lovely folk they may be, but they are barely household names in their own households. Labour simply lacks voices who carry weight within the party, never mind with the public at large.
As the endless vox-pops filling the TV and radio airwaves show in this referendum campaign voters were listening and weighing the arguments. If Labour had been able to field nationally recognisable leaders it might have stood a chance. Gordon Brown did his best but post the crash and lingering resentment over the Scottish independence vote English voters weren’t listening. It is to Tony Blair’s eternal shame that his command and control approach to his party left Labour with no heavyweights able to articulate a renewed moderate vision once the man himself had become tarnished by the mistakes of Iraq. Blair pushed his New Labour army relentlessly forward into the lands of middle England. But in doing so he neglected his home flank—even as it delivered real improvements to traditional Labour communities, the Blair government too often gave the impression that at best it wasn’t interested or at worst slightly embarrassed by them. The legitimate—and very Labour worries—about the effect that the unprecedented rapid immigration from the new Eastern European EU states would have on jobs and wages were dismissed. The reason the line, much peddled by Brexiters, that those concerns were dismissed by the political elite—on the condescending grounds that to think that was a bit racist and anyway, as The Economist kept saying, it made it easier to get a plumber or nanny—had such resonance is that is is broadly true. If the Blair government had done what most of the rest of the EU did and put transitional controls in place then Britain wouldn’t, today, be heading for the EU exit door.
My old boss Ed Miliband simply never stood a chance in breaching the growing divide between Labour and its base. Elected to the leadership on the votes of union and party activists, desperate from a break from the Blair/Brown years the public could see what he is—a decent man but a firmly metropolitain one. By the time his battle bus was filled with “controls on immigration” campaign mugs the voters could see his heart wasn’t in such a pledge, no matter how much theirs were.
My message to the party—keep calm, but don’t carry on. The danger now is that of an instant inverse reaction. MPs for heartland seats in a self preservation strategy pushing Labour into a kind of “UKIP light” strategy, vying with the new “leave” Tory leader as to who can be seen to be “beastliest to the Germans” in the haggling over the practicalities of Brexit.
It won’t work. The laughable “lines to take” script, issued to hapless Labour politicians pushed in front of TV cameras this morning, which claimed Corbyn “lead from the front” show the futility of trying to pretend black is white. The voters heard his 7/10 backing for the EU all too clearly.
There are surprising advocates of the carry on approach. Many leading moderates know that the party faces a bloodbath in the instant general election almost certain to follow the crowning of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Echoing a comment made about Tony Benn when Labour last faced annihilation in the early 1980s they know the party is about to be “hung” so they believe it may as well be with “Corbyn’s own rope.”
This is the real danger for the party. Even in the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher was carrying all before her and Labour formally split there was a hardcore stock of traditional working class voters ready to be led over the top by a Labour general no matter what the circumstances. This referendum showed that those voters will be lead blindly no more.
Yes, politics is febrile. Yes, soon after that snap Boris election the realities of Brexit the economy may well nose-dive giving space for Labour. But unless Labour can show it has a real leader it will have no chance in seizing that opportunity. A leader who can listen and speak to the country. Above all one who can earn enough respect from the country that she or he can persuade and change minds.
If Boris had backed remain Cameron would have won and been looking at years not weeks left in Downing Street. Why? Because although they can see his faults voters are prepared to listen to him. He has been prepared to say things they disagree with and to take unfashionable positions. Above all his hair and his suits may be a mess but he seems to “speak human.” He may throw in a few classical references but he isn’t speaking from a script, they don’t mind that his sentences are often as unruly as the blond mop because they think he actually believes what he says and they are prepared to be persuaded.
If Labour can’t find its own Boris soon, not an old Etonian classicist but a leader who can actually persuade, the party is set to face the gravest crisis since its foundation, and it might end up being not only Britain’s EU membership that is heading for that exit door.
Matthew Laza is Director of Policy Network, a leading international progressive think tank. After a long career as a BBC programme maker he was Ed Miliband’s Head of Broadcasting.