Labour 'must stop infighting and focus on May elections'

Tony Blair

Labour needs to “get its act together” by ending the focus on internal issues and instead showing that it will make progress in next May’s elections, the party’s shadow minister without portfolio has said.

Expressing some exasperation about party infighting that has been reflected in talk of a shadow cabinet reshuffle, Jonathan Ashworth said party members want Labour to focus on the spring elections, and not who is up or down.

Ashworth said: “We have got to get our act together. I am sure everyone will want to come back in January and be entirely focussed on winning those elections facing the country and not the internal issues facing the Labour party.

“That means everybody at every level, from the top downward should be focussed on those elections. We have got to show we are making progress electorally.”

He also set a clear bar for progress, saying: “May 2016 is so important. We have got to win the London mayoral election. We have got to show we are winning again in Scotland. We have got to show we are maintaining our position in Wales and we have got to do well in the local elections, and [increase] our vote in the local government”.

He urged his party to think strategically and to target a politically vulnerable George Osborne as the likely Conservative leader at the next election.

Ashworth said Labour needs to learn the lessons of how the Tories attacked Gordon Brown before he took over as Labour leader from Tony Blair, and start to construct a strategy that pushes Osborne away from the centre ground.

Ashworth, a special adviser in Downing Street under Brown and now MP for Leicester South, has had a reputation as a backroom fixer, but is becoming an increasingly influential figure, sitting on the party’s national executive committee and now responsible for working with party members on opposing the Tories.

He said: “The question for me is not how we feel as party members in 2015, but how we will feel in 2025 because there is a danger by then we will have been through 15 years in opposition, and what will the country look like then.

“We are only going to win in 2020 if we appear as credible alternative government. There is a not a division between electoralism on the one hand and our principles on the other. Our principles demand that we get ourselves elected.”

He explained: “I am desperate to have a Labour government; I am from a working class background. My mum was a nightclub barmaid and my dad was a croupier in a casino. My mum worked in Manchester nightclubs and on Sunday afternoons I remember sitting as a kid with her helping her to count up the 2ps and 10ps she had got as tips because that was topping up her meagre wages. I have seen the difference Labour governments make to people like myself.”

He said the party still has to learn the lessons of why it lost so badly in 2015, and added he expects the review into its defeat to be given to the national executive committee and to be published. At present it remains under wraps. “How can it be in a former mining seat like Sherwood that had a Tory majority of 200 went to a Tory majority of 4,500? We have to ask ourselves some fundamental questions,” he said.

He urged the party to recognise that Cameron could soon no longer be his party’s chief political enemy. Labour was badly wrong-footed in the 1992 election after John Major succeeded a deposed Margaret Thatcher, and Ashworth wants the party to anticipate its opponent in 2020.

He argued: “The only purpose Cameron has now is to deliver this [EU] referendum, which he offered out of interests of party management and to help contain divisions in his party.

“I don’t think beyond the referendum, he has any other raison d’être. We in the Labour party need to realise that as soon as he has had his referendum, his days are pretty much numbered.

“So if he has the referendum in the summer of 2016 – and that seems the obvious time from their point of view to go for it – that feels pretty much like the beginning of his end, and we in the Labour party have to think strategically about what is going to come next and who we are most likely to face.

“When I was working for Gordon Brown in 2005 the Tory’s focus switched from Tony Blair. They anticipated the transfer of power in the 2005 election with posters saying ‘vote Blair, get Brown’. It is now almost a case of ‘vote Cameron get Osborne’.”

Ashworth gave a backhanded compliment to Cameron admitting he has been a less easy personal and ideological target than Osborne may prove.

“There is limited polling but Osborne is a less sympathetic character in the eyes of the public, but also as an opponent he opens up interesting territory for the Labour party.

“Although in Westminster he has this terrific reputation as the master of political strategy, when you really begin to probe, Osborne is not that competent – he has missed all his targets on the deficit numerous times. [Department for Work and Pensions] ministers had to come to parliament because he has missed the welfare cap he set himself.

“We now have the worst trade deficit since 1830 according to the [Office for Budget Responsibility]. He promised to double trade by 2020, but on current trajectory he could not get that until 2032.

“There is an image of spin around Osborne and that, in an age when authenticity is so important, is a fatal flaw.

“Authenticity – meaning what you say and saying what you mean – is becoming so vital in politics. It partly explains what happened in Scotland, the rise of Ukip and even Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary election.

“Yet there is so much spin about Osborne. He is now employing nine special advisers presumably working flat out on his election. It is almost like his Treasury machine is his base to move next door to Number 10. People see through him. So much of what he says is untrue – no cuts to police budgets, no cuts to tax credits.”

Ashworth also suggested Osborne may damage himself in his desperation to win the leadership: “Obviously there is a risk that Boris Johnson wins, but my sense is that Osborne has got far more support in the parliamentary party and I think what they will do is try to fix it so it is Osborne versus Theresa May on the final ballot paper. Johnson will be blocked.”

He argued Osborne is in reality a more ideological figure than Cameron and his commitment to a budget surplus is not a tactical manoeuvre, but a reflection of his determination to strip the state. “Cameron always presents cuts as tightening our belts so we can get back the budget back into balance. Osborne is determined to reduce the size of the state, he has talked about getting it back down to 36% of GDP – that is the totemic benchmark of rightwing conservative.

Ashworth implied the next election will have to be fought in the centre. He said: “Osborne will want to position himself as on the common ground or say he is dominating centre, the party of Labour, of the common working man, but I think we can push him off this ground.”

The question then arises whether Labour itself will need to be in the centre if it is to dislodge Osborne.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 30th December 2015 18.07 Europe/London

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