Forget the leadership squabbles. If Labour wants a quick return to power, it must learn to do what David Cameron has done: show contritionby James Crabtree / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
One thing seems certain in British politics: Labour will lose the next election. Opinion polls in November may have seen a once-impregnable Tory lead shrink, giving credibility to thoughts of a hung parliament. And the electoral system is stacked against the Conservatives, who must win the popular vote by six percentage points for a majority of just one. Even so, the tiniest swing will end Labour’s parliamentary lead, and its public legitimacy. David Cameron may not win a thumping mandate, but Gordon Brown’s odds of struggling on as prime minister are trivially small. The likely scenario come 7th May is a smallish Cameron majority, and a wounded (but not crushed) Labour opposition. But unlike the Tories in 1997, Labour will then have a chance to spend just one term in the wilderness. To grasp it, the party must focus quickly on a task that stumped the Conservatives for a decade: wiping the slate clean with the electorate.
It will be tempting to ignore this project; to paper over the failures of office, hunker down, and attack. Labour could retreat to its comfort zone of defending collective institutions and haranguing heartless Tories. No need for rethinking or rebranding, the logic will go: we didn’t lose by much, let’s just pick a new leader and pull together. But this would be a big mistake. Labour’s missteps in office have been many, and its brand is now nearly as contaminated as the Tories before it. Rather than bullheadedly defending its record, its post-election task will be to break with it. In short, the most important question Labour faces is not who should lead it out of defeat, but how, when and on which terms it apologises to the people of Britain. With a convincing apology, Labour might bounce back by 2015. Without one it has little chance. Yet some acts of contrition work better than others, and some leaders are more adept at the arts of political remorse. So what makes a good political apology, and who is the person to make it?
The first step towards plausible apology is, of course, admission of culpability. Unfortunately it is on this first step that Labour may stumble. Many on the left blame Gordon Brown individually for their predicament, but few truly think that Labour itself has much to apologise for. Yes, Iraq was a mistake, they say. And of course Tony was too besotted with the market. But beyond this the mea culpas are few. And there is some justice in this view: Labour’s record is surely better than its lowly poll ratings suggest. Nonetheless, a less defensive party would see, as the public sees, a cluster of issues on which it has erred. Iraq is obvious. Add to that too much respect for the alchemy of finance and the wisdom of bankers (all those banker-led commissions), which also meant too much timidity towards the rich on income tax, council tax and non-dom status. Politically, Labour cleaved towards middle England, appeared to ignore its traditional base, supported unprecedented mass immigration with little preparation or explanation, and drove too many of its core voters to Ukip and the BNP. And all of this is before accounting for the style of its governance: the media handling, sibling leadership bickering, and the hand-in-the-till final straw of expenses.