Why Labour’s New Leader Needs to Play it Long in Opposition
The Scotsman, September 25th 2010
Labour delegates gather in Manchester in much better heart than many expected a few months ago.
The party is recovering in the polls, having drawn level with the Tories in one poll, and by next week ‘the Miliband momentum’ of David or Ed will have taken Labour into the lead for the first time since Gordon Brown failed to call the election he had been planning for in 2007.
Many myths exist about Labour in opposition – with differing degrees of truth. One is that the party always comes under the influence of its unrepresentative members and the doctrinaire left. Another is that the party always becomes more radical in opposition, confusing substance and style.
The Labour leadership contest has been dismissed as a non-event and internal party conversation, missing the point that after a decade of New Labour rule from on high the grass roots party needs a bit of attention, love and care.
Labour needs to read the polls turning in its favour with caution. Historically, the party has when it is evicted from office recovered relatively quickly in the polls. A study by Phil Cowley, co-author of ‘The British General Election of 2010’ illustrates this. Six months after Labour’s 1951 defeat the party was seven percent ahead of the Tories; in 1970 after six months of opposition Labour had a five percent lead over Ted Heath, and in 1979 it enjoyed a four percent lead over Thatcher.
Today five months after Labour’s defeat the party is six to seven percent up on its dismal result in the May election. The way polls are going within the next week or two the party will not only be in the lead, but over 40% for the first time in five years.
What is going on to a party written off as dead just a few months ago? In part this is the building public anxiety about cuts and the coming age of austerity. Another is that Labour is learning the craft of opposition. This has already been seen in Scotland with Iain Gray’s populist politics against the SNP and at Westminster with Ed Ball’s bellicose battering of the coalition. This kind of politics gets you out of the hole, but it is no guide to winning or governing.
Labour’s historic rebounding in opposition point to the perils of the Gray/Balls approach. It is the politics of short-termism, knee-jerkism, and motivated by a too obvious demonising of your opponents, whether SNP or Conservatives, which clouds your own judgement.
Labour after 1951 spent thirteen years in opposition, after 1979 eighteen years, and even after 1970 only scrapped back into minority government. Labour in opposition – New Labour apart – has always gone for the easy options, believing in its own propaganda, and misunderstanding its opponents.
Since Labour’s recent election defeat – history seems to be repeating itself – as the party goes down the short-term route, aided by its resurgence in the polls. What we have heard so far from Labour is the Ed Balls school of contrarian opposition politics: playing up the Conservative callous bogeyman, seeing the whole experience as a rerun of the 1980s (and even god forbid the 1930s), and castigating the Lib Dems as nothing more than naïve Tory stooges. If Labour goes down this route it will be in opposition for more than a decade.
Labour’s new leader needs to make a clear break with the past – in this case the immediate past of the Old Labour of Blair and Brown. They need to stand up to the party at points, and embrace it in others.
He has to appoint his own Shadow Cabinet rather than as the current rules suggest allow it to be elected by the PLP – which was recently reaffirmed by Labour MPs. There is no more conservative electorate in the world than Labour MPs.
More importantly, he needs to learn from the past, take stock and learn, and use it to change practice towards the future. The mainstream Labour hierarchy assume or hope that the worst excesses and mistakes of New Labour can be rectified by the party naturally healing itself without having to do much to bring this about.
This is wishful thinking. Something major needs to happen which shows an understanding of the extent to which New Labour became an unapologetic champion of the powerful and privileged, blurred lines between the world of politics and corporate interests, and saw the vocation of being a politician and government minister as a progression towards the ultimate destination of corporate super-remuneration and making serious money. Think John Reid, Adam Ingram, Patricia Hewitt, Stephen ‘cab for hire’ Byers.
One way to do this would be setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as Labour’s contribution to clean up politics. This could set new standards for future Labour politicians and ministers demanding that after being in office they agreed to refrain from becoming advocates of corporate interests. Such an approach would actually find a powerful resonance with the public, who know who our politicians most acutely listen too.
This takes us to the wider question: what does Labour stand for, and what does it seek to do? There have been four periods of post-war Labour Government – and only one – the 1945 administration succeeded in reducing inequality in income and wealth, thanks to the levelling effect of the Second World War. The three Labour Governments of 1964, 1974 and 1997 all failed to leave office with Britain a fairer, more equal society than they first found it.
This is the fundamental area that Labour needs to answer and find a governing credo to address. How can it make Britain a more equal society in a country disfigured by blighted chances, lives and poverty, alongside a super-rich who shape much of our politics, society and culture?
How can Labour develop an egalitarian politics which doesn’t just fall into being about lifting people in poverty or disadvantage out of such circumstances, and moves away from the waffle of widening opportunity? How does Labour address the anxious, nervous middle classes, and make them realise that the flexible, fragile times invoked by New Labour and Cameron don’t offer them any security and prosperity?
This requires Labour giving as wide a berth as possible to the short-term, opportunist politics of Iain Gray and Ed Balls. It requires the party leadership to ignore calls north of the border for Scottish Labour to be seen as some kind of model of success and example of what to do in opposition.
Instead, Labour has to take the difficult road of avoiding the pull of the short term, and playing it long against the coalition. This entails attempting the demanding exercise of coming up with a credo and moral mission which makes sense to the party’s historic sense of itself, and more importantly, speaks to the millions of worried voters out there.
The public are despite the worst excesses of New Labour surprisingly prepared to listen to Labour again; it is an opportunity the party could easily waste.