For a comeback strategy, Britain’s Labour party should look to Australia | Ed Williams | Opinion
“Labor lost the election because of a weak strategy that could not adapt to the change in [government] leadership, a cluttered policy agenda that looked risky and an unpopular leader. Not one of these shortcomings was decisive but in combination they explain the result.”
Only a few weeks after Labour’s general election disaster, this seems a fair analysis of what went wrong. Except that it is no such thing. It is the Australian Labor party’s internal review after its shock general election defeat last May. It is an honest assessment, available to all, of why and how democratic leftwing parties lose elections. Given what unfolded in the UK election, it is unlikely that anyone close to the Labour leadership had read it. Or if they had, they ignored its central findings.
Jeremy Corbyn has promised to stay on as party leader to allow a “period of reflection”. He is right that reflection is needed, but so is a review of how Labour lost, why it lost, and how to ensure those mistakes are never repeated. The former leader Ed Miliband has now joined a group of MPs and other party members to carry this out.
The Australian Labor review took five months. This was done in the context of a parliament with three-year terms and an election that everyone expected Labor to win, which ultimately left the party eight seats short of a majority government. In contrast, Britain has five-year terms, Labour lost hugely, and at no stage did the polls predict that Corbyn would be elected.
Only three Labour leaders since 1945 have won elections: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. All three were highly able political leaders, but all only won their first election after long periods of Conservative rule. That is a stark lesson for Labour. Not only must you have a highly competent leader, you also need years of Conservative misrule for the public to take a chance on you.
Labour might not win an election until 2025. That would be 20 years since Blair’s third election victory. None of the subsequent Labour leaders have come close. If they are not in with a reasonable prospect of winning in 2025, Labour’s very survival will be in question, for what is the point of a political party that cannot win elections?
Labour’s review cannot be a partisan one, controlled by one particular faction at the expense of another. It has to be transparent and brutal in its honesty about mistakes. Factionalism can have no place. The review must also have the gravitas to direct Labour away from repeating its electoral failings.
The Australian Labor party’s approach – forming a review body of six respected party figures, including political grandees – is, of course, one way it could be done. However, the British party’s problems could quickly become existential if it refuses to engage effectively with the recent past.
That is why its review needs not only its political, trade union and community figures, but also a well-respected legal presence, such as a retired high court judge or a senior lawyer. This is the best way of ensuring the review has the skills necessary to gather evidence, record and categorise it. That legal presence needs to be independent of the past and current Labour leadership. Failure to source this legal skill set risks the review becoming a broad exchange of political perspectives that lacks a detailed analysis.
Of course, a review is just the start. Many may ask what the point is of a review, given that those in control of the Labour movement may choose to ignore it. However, even if that dispiriting prospect should prove true, a high-quality, transparent review would still give an analytical guide to those progressive voices that are fed up with losing over and over again.
The Labour party deserves better than post-election polemics, and so do those working-class voters who felt they had no choice but to vote Conservative.
The Australian Labor party has many more years left in it. Does the British Labour party care enough about winning to safeguard its future? How it engages with a review will go a long way to answering that question.
• Ed Williams QC is a barrister at Cloisters chambers, and a former prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour