The Labour MP Stephen Kinnock said the party was becoming increasingly divisive, winning millions more votes but few further seats, which, he said, showed that Labour was failing to reach across the country’s divides riven by Brexit.
Kinnock, who has co-authored a book about the possible future for the party, along with MPs including Anna Turley and Dan Jarvis, and the Brexit-backing Labour businessman John Mills, said the proposal was also a challenge to his colleagues thinking of leaving the party. It offered them a way to shape Labour’s future.
“This is about staying and fighting for our party. That is in no way meant as fighting against anything within it,” Kinnock said. “The one thing that does unite us all is a desire to win elections, to form a government and to change the country. Drifting back to the liberal centre would be a fatal error, we are not in 1997 any more. Drifting to the hard left, with a conspiracy driven view of the world, is also a fatal error. This is an offer to get back to a principled debate about what we can offer.”
Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon, said there were “two dominant tribes shaping 21st century Britain” – communitarians and cosmopolitans. The assessment mirrored that of the journalist David Goodhart who categorised the new divide as between “somewheres” and “anywheres”.
The MP said it was time for the party to accept the assessment that it had still concentrated too much on cosmopolitans – liberal, educated, middle-class voters comfortable with globalisation – at the expense of communitarians, whose values were “rooted in community” and who “valued security over personal liberty”.
Kinnock said he saw the departure last week of the Labour MP Frank Field – a staunch supporter of Brexit, who advocated a tougher approach to migration, coupled with long-running campaigning on low pay and welfare – as a sign the party was losing touch with some of those values.
“I don’t agree with everything [Field] said or the way he has voted but he brings something to the party that is valuable and is important, an understanding of the communitarian values at the heart of the party’s history,” he said. “We have to reconnect with those roots and it is going to be much more difficult to do that without people like Frank Field supporting us.”
The book co-authored by Kinnock, entitled Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour, argues that both New Labour and the party under Jeremy Corbyn have “almost exclusively cosmopolitan politics” and calls that position “electorally and morally bankrupt”.
Kinnock started the project with his co-author, Joe Jervis, after the EU referendum. He said the “deeply divided, polarised, country” had been thrown into sharp relief by the referendum, and then in the 2017 election it could be seen how much those divides were entrenched.
“In 2010 we got 29% of the vote and 258 seats, and in 2017 we got 4 million more votes and won four more seats. That says we are stacking up votes in some places and becoming increasingly Marmite.”
Kinnock said the shift in Labour’s approach was needed not just to secure an election victory, but to win a convincing majority and keep Labour in power for several election cycles.
He said in 2017 that there had been a swing against Labour in 130 constituencies, the vast majority of which had voted leave.
Most MPs who have contributed to the book are from areas which voted leave in the 2016 referendum, though one of the chapters on security has been written by Will Straw, former head of the Stronger In campaign.
Turley, the Labour and Co-operative MP for Redcar, who co-authored a chapter on regional growth, said there was much the party could build on, including its 2017 commitments concerning zero-hours contracts, as well as the Build it in Britain campaign about manufacturing.
“Jeremy captures some of this really well,” she said. “However, on defence, national security and crime we are not articulating as well as we could be.”
Kinnock said the party had to get its patriotism across convincingly. “Vitally, we are patriots, we believe the nation state is a force for good,” he said.
He said the Labour leader could do more to speak convincingly on that subject over the coming months. “People have to believe that Corbyn does not have an anti-west view of the world, that he doesn’t only see our history as one of colonialism and imperialism and nothing else. There is also a perception that we want to centralise and nationalise everything, when people want to see power and control coming back to local communities.”
Kinnock stressed he did not want the book to be seen as a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership. “This is meant as a vision that will help to solve a problem the party has – that we have not won a general election since 2005.”
Jarvis, the Barnsley Central MP, who is also mayor for the Sheffield city region, said he intended his contribution on skills, education and automation to be seen as “the hard yards of opposition” in order to prepare a comprehensive offer for the next election.
“At the next election the general consensus among the population will be that Labour has a good chance of winning,” he said. “There has to be a relentless focus on improving it and moving forward. This is a contribution to that process.”
Kinnock said there was not a consensus among the authors about what should happen over the next six months: he favoured an EEA-style deal, Mills favoured exiting both the single market and customs union, and Turley had backed a second referendum on the deal.
Turley said she hoped an adoption of some of the values and ideas advocated in the book could act as a guide to navigating the Brexit process. “One thing we do agree on is that the underlying factors that drove this vote are still there,” she said. “We have to tackle them, and the power to do that lies with Westminster.”
Others who contributed to the book included the MPs Emma Reynolds and Steve Reed, the former MP John Denham, and the broadcaster and John Lewis president, Trevor Phillips, who has written a chapter on Labour and business.