Reflections from the Mile End Institute’s conference on the future of the Labour Party

After Labour’s disastrous election result in December 2019 the Party clearly has some soul searching to do. Those Members of Parliament who are now running to replace Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour have started to offer some analysis of what they think went wrong. But whilst it is important to learn the lessons from the past, it is also important to look forward. A part of this is to identify what a “winning coalition” could look like in the future.

The trouble for Labour is that they do not yet know what type of Conservative Boris Johnson will be. The current Tory majority is built on a new coalition of voters, for the first time including some old Labour heartlands in the North of England. The Prime Minister and his team will be keen to consolidate their vote there and turn a once-in-a-lifetime protest into loyal conservatives. Adding to this is the uncertainty over who the real Boris Johnson is – a social liberal, as some of his acquaintances from the London mayoral years think? Or an authoritarian who merely masked these tendencies during his tenure in City Hall?

Regardless of Mr Johnson’s personal political views, advisers will be keen to ensure that voters in the ex-Labour heartlands will feel the benefits of voting Conservative. The budget is expected to offer some form of investment to these constituencies.

On economic policy, the new Conservative voting coalition will stretch between those who wish to see a liberal economic programme defined by low taxes, a hands-off approach from the state and  one that is orientated towards striking free trade agreements with countries across the world after Brexit. In contrast, the new Northern seats might favour a slightly more interventionist approach especially when it comes to public services such as the NHS or transport infrastructure where Labour voters are traditionally more suspicious of market-led solutions.

Socially conservative policies might be the glue that will hold this coalition together. Vote Leave were the first ones to identify this opportunity and delivered Brexit on the back of a campaign that pledged more investment in the NHS but stricter controls on immigration.

The question now is how Labour will react to this challenge. Investment in public services and an anti-austerity is comfortable territory for the party but if a more interventionist Conservative Treasury neutralises this message, what can Labour do?

The solution to this question goes far beyond Brexit. Although Brexit has helped to realign politics in Britain, the vote to leave the EU was only a symptom, not the cause of the problems and divisions that are now out in the open.

Beneath Brexit lies the question not only of what economic system we want but also a question of political power and agency. A discussion around giving back control must inevitably involve considerations for electoral and constitutional reform. Whilst a centralised Government from Westminster can hand out more cash across the regions, the democratic demands articulated on different sides of the Brexit divide make clear that this is also a question of self-determination.

Labour’s last manifesto aimed to give power back to the people by focusing on public ownership, but this alone might have been too abstract for many voters. To construct a narrative and a voting coalition around reclaiming power, combining a bold economic vision with a programme for constitutional and electoral reform might be a starting point to rebuild.