January 10, 2020
Compared to the intense scrutiny of the 2019 general election campaign, the Labour leadership contest takes place in relative obscurity. That being said, the air of existential threat which accompanied Labour’s bid has failed to diffuse: next time, the party must “win or die”, warned Angela Rayner as she launched her deputy leadership bid this week. Given the size of the Tory majority, the next leader may prove to be a mid-project martyr. 
To Solve Labours Identity Crisis, Candidates Must Leave Labels Behind
Labour supporters are right to ask the big questions sooner rather than later. Who does the party currently represent? Who does it need to represent in order to win? How might supporters situate this future winning coalition within the party’s historical narrative? Does it even need to? As MPs have been announcing their candidacies over recent days, a variety of nods, gestures and half-answers to these questions have emerged. Rebecca Long Bailey plans to “radically democratise the economy”; Lisa Nandy to “empower frontline professionals” to run public services; Jess Phillips to “stand up for those who feel they can’t stand up for themselves”; Keir Starmer to “open up power and opportunity to all our communities”; Emily Thornberry to “foresee and exploit Johnson’s failings”.
At this early stage (voting begins 21 February), a clear proposal of party identity is essential. Labour needs policy and narrative derived from scrupulously upheld values; not, as in 2019, values inferred by the electorate from poorly-packaged policy. On the fabled doorstep, Labour became the party of fiscal carelessness, foreign policy ineptitude and fatally, European indecision — all fronted by a widely unpalatable leader who mismanaged a crippling anti-Semitism crisis. Now, in the deepest depths of opposition, Labour has a chance to decide what it wants to become. If another phenomenon is to transcend single-issue status and become a moral determinant, then Labour must ensure it be the climate crisis.Attempting to rewire the party’s appeal by alluding to cultural conservatism is risky. Rebecca Long Bailey’s initial call for “progressive patriotism” implicitly subscribed to election analyses, which cast Labour’s diverse metropolitan base as the key turn-off to voters in its “traditional” Northern heartlands. Clive Lewis’ pitch — a plotted biography of mixed-race struggle — warns against “attempts to mimic their [the right’s] frames around migration and a distorted view of patriotism”. Perhaps most intelligently, Lisa Nandy’s proposal ends by outlining the shared risks of either approach. She promises to end “the wholesale patronising of working people as a homogeneous group”— the clumsy hallmark of both pandering to xenophobia within white Englishness, and choosing to abandon all “Red Wall” voters because of perceived blanket bigotry. 
The Wigan MP’s initial offering is noticeably quiet on Britishness, patriotism and her own mixed-raced backstory; a strict regional focus is preferred to potentially clumsy meta-narratives. In this she echoes leftist academic Alex Niven, who argues that regionalism is a “more enlightened way to channel tribal feeling than any of our available nationalist fictions”. Understanding that England’s current nationalism is just one among several potential belief systems — many of which can be cultivated in between general elections while reflecting Labour’s egalitarian values — may be a valuable position should Nandy proceed to the ballot. Scotland’s however, poses a huge problem for all. Related... Who Can Take Boris Johnson On? Long Bailey’s official launch did calm concerns: “I will never throw migrants or BAME communities under the bus,” she wrote. But her correction draws attention to deeper complexities about the relationship between national identity and the Labour party after 4 April. 
Central to this is whether (and how) candidates will move beyond demographic labels which not only fail to describe the socio-economic topography of 2020 Britain, but which are themselves the bases of post-election homogenisation narratives. Monolithic class labels, not unlike the “skilled/unskilled” language of reactionary immigration policies, risk fomenting further discrimination towards vulnerable groups, needlessly pitted against each other in the name of political diagnostics. Social stratifications must adjust to the 21st century realities of home ownership, precarious work, student debt and declining manual labour industries. After the election result, critics atomised Labour into its supposedly irreconcilable voter groups using these dated metrics, ignoring Britain’s rapidly shifting demographic sands. Politics professor Matthew Goodwin splitting the party into three entities and calling one group an “awkward alliance of students and ethnic minorities” is a case in point of this theoretical divide and conquer. As with a similar argument made about the US Democrats, such analysis often seems to suggest terminal disunity — not a strong starting point for any leadership candidate.
Labour should also be mindful of the Conservative’s willingness to abandon class-based conceptions of voting behaviour in order to win power. It wasn’t images of city traders that adorned the 2019 Tory manifesto, but employees of Middlesborough’s Wilton Engineering clutching a “We Love Boris” placard. Eager to cement votes that Johnson conceded were only “lent” to his party in 2019, the Tories will continue to co-opt Labour’s historic imagery. Clearly the Tories’ Brexit message was potent, but if another phenomenon is to transcend single-issue status and become a moral determinant, then Labour must ensure it be the climate crisis. 
A green Labour vision represents an opportunity to build towards pioneering cultural, environmental and electoral change while leaving behind the tired demographic frameworks on which “us versus them” narratives of imperial nationalism thrive. The party now has a chance to give the pillars of green democracy a proper airing: new industries, corporate responsibility, community activism and strong diplomacy. All candidates are likely to champion it, but only with a strong leader in opposition can Labour hope to lay foundations for a politics of radical equality — and power. 
Ravi Ghosh is a freelance journalist.Related... Barry Gardiner Says He Will Not Run To Be Labour Leader Why Labour’s Leadership Steeplechase Has Plenty Of Hurdles Left Yet Labour 'Will Be Reduced To 100 Seat Rump If It Fails To Change Direction', Rachel Reeves Says
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