"The dust has begun to settle. We are an army bruised, beaten and bewildered. We worked our socks off delivering leaflets, knocking doors, tweeting cat pictures and arguing with risograph printers. And still David Cameron sits in Downing Street. Ed Miliband’s leadership reinvigorated long-time activists and inspired a new generation of campaigners alike, restoring a sense of hope that Labour could be a party to not only change governments but also change lives. This feels as heartbreaking as 1992, as lethal as 1979 and as shocking as 1983. As we ask where now for Labour, we owe it to our movement to resist the personal blame game – and not to simply launch a salvage operation.
The numbers are brutal – last week was not about media conspiracies or quirks of our electoral process. We cannot pretend we won the popular vote. More people chose the Conservatives over us. Some results defy national trends – whether in Cambridge, Edinburgh South or Enfield North – as others reinforce them. Whether in Scotland or in London or in key marginals, the public didn’t just disregard the received wisdom of pollsters. They also confounded the data underpinning our “get out the vote” activity. The voters have spoken – and told us to think again.
This is not their mistake but our challenge, to which we need to rise. It reflects how not only our argument, but also our actions as a campaigning force will need to be different if we are to win in 2020. Quick fixes – whether new technology or new people or arguing that the Conservatives will cause so much damage the public will “see sense” – risk us making the wrong assumptions about this upset. As challenging as it may seem, we have to allow ourselves the space and discipline to listen and reflect; to grieve and so to learn.
This matters not least because of what we already know about the election. The myriad different battles at both a local and a national level suggests there is no one truth, no one analysis that comfortably explains what happened. Some early lessons are filtering through. Our economic credibility is the core thread that allows us to show how progressive politics require not protecting the status quo but provoking change for the benefit of all. Our campaigning must do more than ask how people vote if we are to build a relationship with them for our shared ambitions for our country.
Rooted in the communities we serve, our cause must be renewed and reaffirmed for a generation that does not want to be told what to do but to shape its own future – and to support not just an opposition but an alternative to narrow Conservatism. All of us must ask fundamental questions about the purpose of the Labour movement and how this is best expressed. Only then can we develop a new politics for the new times we face.
In Harriet Harman we have an interim leader more than capable of stopping the Tories from boxing us into a story of hopelessness. Thoughtful and radical renewal cannot be rushed, and it cannot be devoid of emotion if it is to be meaningful. It will involve talking to those who didn’t back us as well as those who did – and asking both what it would take for them not simply to support us but to become involved.
Therapists will tell you there are several stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining and depression – before acceptance. Recognising that we cannot deny that Labour lost the fight about the future helps us be aware of the centrality of our arguments to our success. Anger for the amazing candidates who didn’t win highlights the value of our people to our movement. Bargaining for the changes that might have made all the difference in some seats shows the need for a more flexible approach to campaigning. Depression at the long road ahead for Labour to return to power helps us appreciate the work to be done.
As JFK once argued: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” And change we must to win in 2020. This will be uncomfortable. But we have been here before. And by being brave we have led again and become a force for good in Britain. Let’s grieve today to enable us to grow tomorrow.
Stella Creasy is MP for Walthamstow