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Waving the flag isn’t the answer to Labour’s problems – Labour needs to fight the Tories & offer real solutions, Richard Burgon MP Exclusive

“Labour’s leadership seems to have decided that the key to winning back lost voters is simply to imitate the Last Night at the Proms.. Is this really the best the Labour leadership can do to win back lost support in the middle of the deepest public health & economic crisis in a century? For me, it shows a real paucity of vision.”

Richard Burgon MP

For me, politics is about winning the change we need so that our society works for the many, not the few.

It’s never easy. When trying to secure fundamental change, we go up against powerful interests. Those who run – and benefit from – the rotten economic system and the owners of much of the media will resist and oppose change and try to ruthlessly rubbish, discredit and destroy those who try to achieve it. But the point is that together we can force changes for the better.

And never have we needed change more than we do now, with over 100,000 Covid deaths and millions struggling through a crisis without a proper financial safety net.

Yet bizarrely given this historic crisis, the Labour leadership seems to have decided that the key to winning back lost voters is simply to imitate the Last Night at the Proms. A new strategy document, leaked to the Guardian, advised Labour to “make use of the flag” to win back the trust of disillusioned voters.

Anyone watching one of the videos from Keir or Angela in recent months will note they have been taking this advice to heart.

Is this really the best the Labour leadership can do to win back lost support in the middle of the deepest public health and economic crisis in a century? For me, it shows a real paucity of vision. 

The crisis has hit people hard all over the country – in those seats that abandoned Labour at the last election over Brexit, in those that backed Labour then and people in areas that haven’t had a Labour MP in decades, if ever.

The job of the Labour Party in opposition must be to build a winning coalition by offering answers to the numerous crises that people in all those communities are facing right here and now – not to re-fight damaging Brexit culture wars.

This is a moment for Labour to be making strong demands on the government for emergency measures to get through this crisis – showing we are on the side of communities across the country, while the Tories line the pockets of their corporate friends by handing out Covid contracts.

If Labour was using every media appearance to argue, day in day out, for proper sick pay, a minimum income to get through the crisis, for rent relief for those accruing debts as incomes fall, for everyone on furlough to be getting at least the living wage, for a boost in the pay of public servants, and a Zero Covid strategy then we could not only force concessions from the Government but we could show who and what we stand for – the interests of the vast majority.

This should also be a moment where we are highlighting how all the failings of the last 40 years of neoliberalism have hindered the response to this crisis and spelling out how Labour in government will replace that and build a country that serves all its people.

Instead of vacuous talk of relying on ‘using the flag’, we should be highlighting how we will end the pernicious role of privatisation in our NHS. We should be emphasising how we will build a public social care service and rebuild the social security system so that it ensures a decent standard of living for everyone and doesn’t let people fall through the huge holes in it. We should be focussed on ending precarious work and tackling unemployment with the kind of skilled jobs offered in a Green New Deal.  The Leader should be consistently highlighting how trade union rights are key and how we will expand them so that people feel emboldened to highlight dangerous workplaces without fear of losing their jobs.

In short, this should be a watershed moment for our society – but we will only get there if we unite different communities behind a powerful message of hope and a clear alternative.

Sadly Labour hasn’t been doing this. We have heard a lot of talk about ‘supporting the government’ and we’ve seen too little opposition. The leaked report also featured comments from focus groups that “I don’t know anything about the Labour party at the moment, they have been way too quiet” and Keir Starmer “needs to stop sitting on the fence”.

As Nye Bevan rightly said, if you stand in the middle of the road you get knocked down. If we ditch such ill-advised positioning and instead put forward answers to the real issues people are facing, then we can turn things around.

Of course, to form the next government Labour does have to widen its electoral coalition, especially in those 52 Leave-voting seats lost at the last election. We need to fight for every vote. The starting point should be to win back all those votes we won in 2017 – the biggest increase in voter share since 1945 – but which we lost as 2019 became a Brexit election. We won them over in 2017 with a progressive message and there’s simply no reason why that can’t be done again.

Instead, too much of the current strategy seems to take for granted the votes from those who voted for us in 2019, including young people, black communities, those in the big cities, and beyond. At the same time, the strategy appears mainly focussed on chasing votes from groups who have always voted for the Conservative Party and never showed any interest in backing Labour. There are large groups of voters who are much more likely to back us next time before these are, but they need to be given real reasons to do so.

Currently, there’s a real danger that the Labour Party ends up with the worst of both worlds losing the support you have already got and not gaining new supporters in sufficient numbers.

By putting forward answers to the real issues people are facing Labour can show itself to be on the side of the vast majority of people in this country. If we don’t do that, then no amount of flag-waving will make up for a failure to meet people’s very real need for answers to this crisis.

Instead of fighting the last political war, Labour needs to be the party that speaks to what all communities have in common – the desire for better jobs, a fairer greener economy, greater equality, access to housing, a decent education, improved public services and a future to look forward to with hope.

  • Richard Burgon is Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, & a regular Labour Outlook columnist alongside Apsana Begum, Ian Lavery, John McDonnell, Kate Osborne, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Jon Trickett & Claudia Webbe.

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