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Labour “continuing in the same direction isn’t going to lead us anywhere but disaster” – Richard Burgon exclusive interview

Ditching our popular policies & seeming to stand for nothing is hitting our support with voters from all across the political spectrum.“

Richard Burgon MP

Labour Outlook question: Labour activists around the country are despondent at the results in Hartlepool and elsewhere, especially at a time when millions of people need the hope of a Labour government and administrations. What are your thoughts on the current situation?

The current situation is very worrying. We are going backwards in the areas we need to win to form the next government – and we are even losing in areas we managed to hold on to in the Brexit election of 2019.

Just look at Hartlepool: a seat you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Labour won in the last two elections, getting an absolute majority of the vote in 2017.

The defeats we suffered there and in other parts of the country, in the West Midlands Mayoral election for example, show our support falling in areas that the party must regain to have any chance of winning the next general election. 

Ditching our popular policies and seeming to stand for nothing is hitting our support with voters from all across the political spectrum. We are losing votes on all sides – people are staying at home, people are voting for other parties posing as progressive and others are going to the Tories.

Hartlepool underlines the consequences of this: we won it with 53% in 2017. Since then the Tories have only gained 1,300 votes. Labour has lost 12,000. This wasn’t a Tory landslide it was a Labour collapse.  

Across the country dropping our popular policies means we have nothing to say to those who voted Tory or stayed at home. 

But it also means many of those who voted for us in the disastrous 2019 election are going to the Greens and other so-called progressive parties. Losing a small proportion of such voters, who are put off by our party ditching its progresisve policies, puts at risk many seats where we have small majorities. And of course we saw in these elections the Greens doing well in Sheffield and Bristol for example. 

Labour can’t afford to take any part of our support base for granted: be that young voters, black and ethnic minority voters, public sector workers, or anybody else.

What do you think Labour’s strategy needs to be?

Our strategy must be to build a broad electoral coalition based on our popular policies that continue to have majority support in communities all across the country.

We need to be clear that we are the party that is on the side of people and spell out how we will deliver the change people want and deserve. We must be the ones offering a bold vision for how their lives can be better.

In 2017 we secured 40% of the vote and advanced at a general election for the first time in 20 years, so we need to look at that example. Then we didn’t just get the biggest percentage increase in our vote since the post-War Attlee government but we also increased the vote share in all regions and social classes. So the party should be looking at the electoral coalition we assembled in that campaign as a starting point. Of course, we need to build on it too, because it didn’t take us far enough to win – but it represented a real step forward. And if we rebuild that coalition as a starting point, then we will win back seats we lost in 2019 and others. 

In this campaign, where we lost, it was because people weren’t clear what the national leadership stood for and where they were clear they didn’t like it. In my experience, it wasn’t only voters on the doorstep who were unsure what our leadership was calling for: I had activists on the phone frustrated that they didn’t have a clue either.  

We’ve had an approach that’s been very light on policy. No amount of photo opportunities eating fish and chips, drinking beer, or engaging in shallow flag-waving will inspire people to vote for us. People see right through it

We’ve got to be very careful not to follow an approach based on appealing to what I think is a patronising caricatured view of working class voters in the north by politicians and political advisors.

What people need to hear, and what will motivate them to come out and vote Labour, is practical policies which will lift their living standards and offer them the change they need.

So Labour needs to spell out what it stands for, And here, the wind should be in Labour’s sails.

In the US, Biden is pushing massive investment in green energy, in modern transport, in health and social care, in social security. If a centrist US President can announce that and back higher taxes on the super-rich to fund it – well, then that’s the very least that the Labour Party needs to be fighting for

Even the Tories have had to adopt the language of “levelling up” and “building back better”. Now of course, its empty rhetoric – but that creates a space for us to lay out what it should look like.

What type of policies should we be focussed on?

Many of the answers can be found in our last manifestoes which have lots of policies that enjoy majority public support. They are the kind of policies that Keir promised to stick when he was running to be Leader.

The key planks of a popular platform should include a minimum wage of at least £10 an hour, a massive council house-building programme, free social care and hundreds of thousands of good jobs through a People’s Green New Deal that triggers a green industrial revolution. We need to offer people dignity at work though through an end to zero hour contracts and a proper pay raise for public sector work workers. We need to be opposing privatization in the NHS and pushing for public ownership to help rebuild areas. We need to advocate that local authorities are properly funded to deliver key public services and communities people can be proud of. 

That’s the kind of series of concrete measures that will show people whose side we are on and that will lift the living standards of the majority of the voters across a diverse range of communities. So we shouldn’t be ditching these policies, or being embarrassed by them – we should be proudly putting them forward.

Let’s look at our successes in places like Wales, Salford and Greater Manchester, Preston and elsewhere, and build on them by learning the lessons they teach us. Where Labour holds the Tories to account, and articulates democratic, socialist policies, principles, and values: we can, and do win, and win well.

In this period of crisis and post the pandemic, the transformative policies which the left of the party have always argued for are more relevant than ever before.

What do you say to Peter Mandelson and the others who want us to move sharply rightwards

Our Party has the popular policies needed to rebuild support – in poll after poll, they’re backed by a large majority of voters. So it was a political decision – not an electoral decision – to ditch them.

And if it was Peter Mandelson or anyone else who persuaded the leadership to drop the policies, well they played a central role in this defeat. 

Personally,  I don’t think Mandelson cares if we win or lose. I think he cares about winning the internal war against the left and nothing more. That’s why he has been opening up attacks on Len McCluskey and Mick Whelan this week – two great trade union leaders.

So instead of listening to Mandelson, I think Keir should start championing our popular policies and I think he should boot out Mandelson from whatever role – formal or informal – that he has.   

If the response to these defeats is just to speed up the ship as it heads towards the iceberg, with a kind of Blairite restoration project, it’s a huge mistake. The solutions to the problems Labour faces cannot be found by going back a quarter of a century to the mid-90s. Things have changed: the economy, our society, British politics, and the wider world.

Siren voices are also saying that the way to win the public is to wage war on the members, which as well as being wrong also disillusions large numbers of activists. What is your message to those activists?

Such voices couldn’t be more wrong. So my message to activists is: I know it’s demoralising when you see policies we were so proud of seemingly being ditched, and when our leadership appears to be more enthusiastic about giving left activists a kicking than taking the fight to a Tory government that’s responsible for corruption on an industrial scale and one of the world’s highest coronavirus death rates.

But stay with us. Labour is not only the party linked to the trade union movement (and therefore the organised working class), but it’s the party with the most socialists in it. So we don’t want left members to leave – if anything, that’s almost rewarding bad behaviour. The left has been at the top of the Labour Party before, when people predicted it never would be: with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader, John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor and Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary. And the fact we were able to win those positions was in no small part down to the fact that socialists had stayed in the party, even in the Blair years.

We can’t walk away and allow ourselves to become an irrelevance. Like all other institutions of the labour movement, the Labour Party is a contested territory: and the left needs to contest it. There’s always a battle of ideas and organisation in the party, and the trade union movement too. I believe the ideas of the left represent the future, and we need to organise for them.

We’ve got to stick together and be part of the fightback: against right-wing ideology, against racism and discrimination, and against attacks on living standards. We have a crucial role to play in that, in my view.

More and more people, both inside the party and more generally, will look at these election results and recognise that the politics and strategy being pursued by the leadership haven’t worked, and that change is required.

Continuing in the same direction isn’t going to lead us anywhere but disaster. We need to not only be proud of the transformative policy agenda developed by the left, trade unionists and grassroots social movements: we need to agitate, advocate and organise for it

Labour members and activists are the beating heart of our party. Thank you for all you’ve done to help us in this campaign, including getting some fantastic socialist candidates elected, in the most difficult of circumstances. And thank you for staying with us. Now let’s step up the fight to ensure our party has the policies needed to defeat the Tories and to change the lives of the majority of people for the better.

  • Join Richard, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott & more at Socialist Solutions to the Crisis, an all-day online event of Labour’s Left on Saturday June 12. Register & info here.

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