The hardest word

Prospect Magazine

The hardest word


Forget the leadership squabbles. If Labour wants a quick return to power, it must learn to do what David Cameron has done: show contrition

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.

Of course, Labour’s next leader need not spend the whole time grovelling for forgiveness. But as the party reshuffles its political cards it must account for previous missteps in order to claim that it has changed. It will not be easy. American politicians, as Barack Obama showed, can break more easily with their party heritage. They are their own movements, born anew with each campaign. But a British leader must climb into the driver’s seat of their party’s old jalopy right at the very moment of its post-election nadir, pausing to spruce it up only mid-journey, while driving off towards the next election.

Contrition is a counter-intuitive approach to political renewal. Most politicians would more instinctively follow John Wayne’s dictum in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never apologise, and never explain. It’s a sign of weakness.” Apologies are unmanly acts that cede ground to opponents: rule with conviction instead. Given Britain’s adversarial politics, it’s no coincidence that apologies haven’t been offered for many of our biggest mistakes—from appeasement, Suez, and the poll tax to the high-rise towers of the 1960s.

But such a brazen approach now looks old fashioned, not least judged by this year’s bumper crop of apologies. Already both party leaders have said sorry for expenses, while in early December David Cameron also apologised for inaccurately accusing the government of giving school funding to radical Islamists. Gordon Brown notably didn’t apologise to the Chilcott inquiry, but did to 130,000 British orphans deported to Australia between the 1920s and the 1960s. Elsewhere, bankers apologised for their bonuses, Jonathan Ross for lewd phone calls, and comedian Jimmy Carr for joking that the Afghan war would bequeath Britain a world-beating 2012 paralympic team.


Such things might seem commonplace, but they are part of a more profound shift towards a confessional politics. Where once apologies were largely about individual conduct, now they more often involve institutions, even nations. And while the act of apologising in politics has been on the rise throughout the 20th century, it was during the 1990s that the age of the political apology really took off (see box p40). It was an era that actually began two decades earlier, on 7th December 1970, when West German leader Willy Brandt visited a monument commemorating the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. Having laid a wreath, he paused, and suddenly knelt on the monument steps. “Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them,” he said later. This Warschauer kniefall, an apology without words, flashed round the world’s front pages. The gesture did more to encapsulate Germany’s remorse for Nazism than any official act before or since.

Following Brandt’s lead, both formal state apologies and publicly captured contrition by their leaders became increasingly common. In recent years, Canada and Australia apologised to their aboriginal populations, while the US, Finland, and Japan expressed regrets for the treatment of their indigenous peoples. Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine and the slave trade, Jacques Chirac for the Dreyfus affair, and both Britain and Canada said sorry for shooting deserters. Truth commissions became fashionable. Pope John Paul II apologised for persecuting Galileo and for the crusades. In 2007 a Danish minister even seemed to mock the new practice when he apologised to the people of Ireland for the Vikings.

Of course, all of this is not to compare Labour’s recent political failings with some of the darkest moments in human history. But understanding why the British left should follow a strategy of public contrition means first understanding the roots of our newly apologetic public culture. It’s a change rooted in the thawing of the cold war, which in turn defrosted ethnic struggles, saw civil wars and identity conflicts flourish, and created the ideological space in which historical grievances—colonialism, for instance, and slavery—could again be aired. States responded by trying to recognise injustices, and seeking to atone for them.

Within this lay also a broader philosophical idea that responsibility need not only be borne only by directly implicated individuals. Political theorists like Oxford’s David Miller, in his 2007 book National Responsibility and Global Justice, began to argue that responsibility could be collective, and in turn that it could be borne by states and other entities (like companies or political parties), often generations after the fact. What used to be called “collective guilt” was given renewed justification and vitality. Perhaps more importantly for Labour, this argument was also mirrored by a turn towards an intimate, confessional public culture, which ate away at old systems of deference and hierarchy. Tony Blair understood this move, but it was Bill Clinton, more than any politician, who embodied the new archetype of politician as one-man remorse machine. He contrived to say sorry not just for the pain he brought into his marriage, but also variously to Hawaiian islanders, the people of Rwanda, victims of Guatemalan and El Salvadorian violence, and participants in government-sponsored syphilis experiments, to name a few. The man Joe Klein dubbed “the Great Apologiser” understood that these “feel your pain” moments forged visceral connections between politicians and their increasingly disconnected publics.

For sure, this apologetic turn has its critics. Human rights campaigners complain that remorseful statements and truth commissions don’t correct underlying economic or political injustices. Many philosophers see logic neither in governmental apologies nor contemporary populations being held accountable for the sins of their fathers. Others see public contrition as mawkish post-Diana showboating. Yet all this makes the rise of political apology no less real. Astute politicians should instead internalise the fact that renewal begins with atonement.

Here Labour has much to learn from its opponents. David Cameron has actually used the A-word fairly sparingly. He did say sorry in 2006 for Conservative support for apartheid-era South Africa. And there are many things for which he hasn’t apologised: his recent “big society” speech notably glossed over the social cost of 1980s dole queues. Yet looked at another way, Cameron’s leadership has been one long apology, in which he often admits that his party had lost touch with modern Britain. His most memorable public acts have been statements of implied remorse. Riding with huskies apologised for his party’s indifference to green issues. Picking women and ethnic minority candidates said sorry for a heritage of social intolerance. Hugging hoodies atoned for “the nasty party.” And his statement that “there is such a thing as society” apologised for Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there wasn’t. When the Cameroons talk about “decontaminating” their brand, they are talking about repentance. Theirs has been a deeply apologetic modernisation.

Seen in the same vein, Gordon Brown’s failure stems in part from his inability to say sorry. He succeeded Tony Blair but seemed unable to break from his inheritance. Change was promised, but the policies stayed much as before. A stubborn leader, Brown seemed to sense that he was too implicated in the past. But by not finding imaginative ways to break with Blairism, he failed to create the political space in which his own ideas could grow. Unlike Clinton, Brown never understood that a properly executed apology is an act of political strength, not weakness—an act that allows the skilled leader to define the terms of debate, allows supporters to achieve closure over the divisions of the past, and provides the firmest base for political renewal.

In practice, any future Labour leader must, as David Cameron has done, combine occasional moments of open contrition with more frequent symbolic acts of implied apology. Such moments must, of course, be chosen with great care. Go too far and you risk being blamed for things that weren’t your fault. Fail to go far enough, and you risk accusations of mealy-mouthed opportunism. The right balance of admission, contrition and resolve will also depend crucially on the post-election public mood. William Hague tried various implied apologies after 1997—his trip to the Notting Hill carnival, for instance—and got nowhere. The public weren’t ready to listen. And so it may be with Labour, for a while: just as with any fractured marriage, time must be taken before an apology has any effect. All of this means the strategy of contrition must be carefully executed, and undertaken genuinely. A good apologist will seek dramatic, memorable acts, as with Cameron and the huskies. They will also realise that contrition is an ongoing process, not a single act. Most importantly, you’ve got to say it like you mean it: the public will quickly see through a purely tactical approach.

This brings up the vexed issue of the leadership. Labour has a decent field of candidates. Yet not all are temperamentally well suited to apologetic politics. Such a ledger counts against the likes of Ed Balls, a talented and intelligent politician but hardly someone who has cultivated a contrite public image. A Balls leadership would apologise for nothing, and could all too quickly decline into a circular firing squad of factional recriminations. An apologetic approach requires those less implicated in the mistakes of the past, and thus able to move beyond them. All the possible candidates—with the exception of Jon Cruddas, who says he won’t stand anyway—have served under Gordon Brown. But some seem less mired by their association. This strengthens the case for the likes of Ed Miliband and James Purnell, although for different reasons. Miliband worked closely with Brown, but he is popular with both left and right, an able and empathetic communicator, and young enough to be a clear generational shift. An Ed Miliband apology could seem thoughtful and sincere. Purnell, on the other hand, can credibly say sorry for Labour mistakes because he was brave enough to walk out because of them, while others dithered.

Whoever Labour picks as its next leader, they must grapple quickly with the paradox at the heart of the political apology. In his book, Mea Culpa, sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis puts it like this: “An apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done. And yet, in a mysterious way and according to its own logic, that is precisely what it manages to do.” The sooner Labour realises this, the sooner it can begin the process of returning to power.

  1. January 7, 2010

    mike ashworth

    Lets hope they say sorry properly, as there are many poor apologies out there

    A proper apology is made up of three parts

    1. They should say “i’m sorry” not I apologise or we regret. These do not carry the same weight.

    2. They should say they screwed up

    3. They should say what they are going to do to make it better.

    I wont hold my breath ;-)


  2. January 7, 2010


    Too late. Lifelong Labour voters just want them to dry up and blow away.

  3. January 8, 2010

    Maggie Hillock

    (From Facebook)

    Maggie Hillock:
    The day that a proper apology as Mike suggests happens will be a great day indeed.

  4. January 8, 2010

    John Kemp

    (From Facebook)

    From the Office of the Prime Minister: Dear Voter, I am sorry that I claimed to have put an end to the cycle of boom and bust. I recognise now that this was pure hubris and vastly overestimated the influence that I had over the economic cycle. I am sorry that I sold off our gold reserves in a ridiculously inopportune manner. I am sorry that I did … See Morenot give you the chance to vote me out of office for fear that you would indeed vote me out of office. I am sorry that I tried your patience by telling you I needed time to elaborate my vision of Britain when I had no such vision nor the capacity for developing one. I recognise that all this was the consequence of my rivalry with Tony Blair and had nothing to do with my ability to actually lead the country in anything like an inspiring manner. I am sorry that I taxed your intelligence by talking about Tory cuts and Labour investment when you and I both knew all along that cuts in public services would be required. I am sorry that my New Year’s message was similarly full of transparently self-deluding twaddle….Finally I am sorry that it is far too late for any of these regrets to have an influence on the outcome of the next election.

  5. March 12, 2010

    Lucy Skywalker

    Right on. Best wise words I’ve seen about politics for a long time.

    If Ed Milliband becomes the new Labour leader, the first apology he needs to make is dismissing climate sceptics as flat-earth deniers. Without such an apology and with backup evidence of plans for reform legislation for Science and the media, IN COOPERATION with those sceptics who have suffered and been cast out and ignored, he will gain no traction. He will not be seen as trustworthy if he is not seen to apologize and re-open discussion.

  6. April 16, 2010

    Penvronius Miles Cambrensis

    A very interesting idea:

    It is easy to say one is sorry but to be sorry and act in sorrow and being truly is a totally different thing.

    Being sorry means making restitution. If I steal £100 and go to confession to make amends I will only receive true absolution when I have vowed to make restitution. If not directly, then, indirectly by giving what I stole to someone else in need, or by giving my time and energy freely to help another in need.

    Why I have such distaste for Fony Flair as I prefer to call the ex-Prime Minister (prime seems hardly an appropriate word in the moral and ethical sense) is because despite the fact that he along with Bush and his cohorts is responsible for the deaths and disfigurements of so many non-combattants in Iraq, he has never once expressed any sympathy at all let alone an apology for the horrors he has inflicted on the innocent.
    Neither has he dipped his hand into his plenitudinously filled pocket, to help a hospital or orphanage in this country.

    I wondered if he even confessed these great sins at his first confession – but if he did the Westminster Worthy who heard this would probably say, ‘well done, Tone, two Hail Marys and don’t worry – all is forgiven so on your way happily to make your next trillion or two’.

    That in itself is not good enough. Henry II had to do public penance for instigating the murder of Thomas a Becket.

    So even the Bride of Christ is now longer sadly incorruptible.

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James Crabtree

James Crabtree
James Crabtree is comment editor of the FT 

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