Tortoise Festival of ThinkIns – The future of the party: Labour

Saturday 29 June 2019

Duration: 10:45AM - 11:45AM

16-19 Eastcastle Street, London, W1W 8DY

Status: Completed

The future of the party: Labour.  After the post-Corbyn surge in membership it’s the ‘biggest political party in western Europe’. It’s young – relatively – and vibrant. So why is Labour so tortured? Jeremy Corbyn is out of step with his MPs; the MPs are out of line with their local parties; the whole machine is out of tune with the country. Something has to change. What should it be?

Our special guests for this ThinkIn included:

Douglas Alexander, Labour politician, cabinet minister from 2006–2010.

Carwyn Jones, former First Minister of Wales, Leader of Welsh Labour Party, 2009–2018.

Ali Milani, vice president of NUS. 

Lesley Smith, former adviser to Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair.

The Readout

Labour is a party of splits. The leadership and its backbenchers see the world very differently; MPs and their local parties are at odds. On the big issues – how to navigate Brexit, how to deal with antisemitism – disunity reigns. So far, so well understood. The surprise of the ThinkIn was to discover less well-recognised splits and realise how important they are. 

The lightbulb moment came early, when Carwyn Jones (Labour’s leader in Wales and First Minister until last year) said – to his own surprise, it seemed – that he had never in his life spoken to Labour’s leader in Scotland, Richard Leonard, even though the two men overlapped as party leaders in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

The picture which emerged was not of a single, UK-wide Labour party but of several; each in its own nation or region of the UK, head-down, trying to figure out how to deal with emerging questions of national identity (Scottish, Welsh and English) – and failing. 

Labour can’t win a general election without Scotland and Wales. But the omens are bad: nine per cent of the vote in the European Elections in Scotland; and out-polled by Plaid Cymru in the same vote in Wales. 

Across the United Kingdom, Labour’s support is strongest where a sense of national identity is weakest. London is becoming a bastion, Scotland a desert. The job of figuring out how to deal with identity-based politics has barely begun.

It’s clear that Labour can’t match nationalist parties for nationalism, but in a battle for hearts more than minds it has to find a way to match them for empathy and storytelling. 

What next?