Labour’s to-do list: spring clean, find new leader (and policies), reposition party without alienating voters in the marginalsby Anne McElvoy / May 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
On Planet Labour, defeat is sinking in slowly. One former cabinet minister joked to me that he bolted out of bed for his regular Monday morning meeting, only to remember someone else now meets the civil servants. “I went back to bed,” he says. From the ruling party to the pyjama party in a week. But how to regain the power that has transferred to the Lib-Con coalition?
David Miliband, often accused of being a ditherer, wasted no time. His comment that the shadow cabinet room “reeks of the absence of power” is his shorthand pitch as the man most likely to win it back. The hung parliament meant there was never a moment when the slap that voters gave Labour struck home, although so far there has been a fastidiousness in not blaming Gordon Brown, whose dignified exit should not conceal his role in the defeat.
Happily for his would-be successors, this is no 1983. Labour did not thrive, but neither was it trounced. The party has 260 MPs—the same level as 1992, and a good springboard for recovery. The “Kennedy Liberals” (Charles not JFK) may soon decide that their party’s proximity to the Conservatives involves too great a sacrifice, and divide the Lib Dem vote. Already the word “unprincipled” hangs around the Cleggaron coalition. So how Labour conducts its leadership campaign, and the outcome, are significant for its chances in the next election.
Alas, it has lived with self-denying ordinances for so long that debate about the direction of the party is an underused faculty. Even its internal power transfers have been conducted without introspection. Now the new breed is expressing unity of purpose. Ed Balls, who has a Rottweiler reputation, warns against splits along Blairite-Brownite lines. Miliband senior says Labour must be “canny about how we position ourselves.” Together with his brother Ed—the Cain and Abel of Primrose Hill—he promises unusually polite fraternal strife.
No one would recommend Labour returning to the internal hatreds that followed 1983, but something is wrong with the present state of anaesthetised sensibility. It won’t last—and it shouldn’t. The party needs to clear its own mind about what being Labour—or post new Labour—means. Already it is divided on policy and priorities. And as Nick Clegg nudges the Conservatives towards the centre, the task of finding a set of principles to define Labour in opposition becomes more pressing. “We were too timid on the role of government in the economy,” says David Miliband. But what degree of intervention does the modern centre-left deem wise? And where does it derive the confidence that central intervention can predict crises and avert them?
Public services, the dog that did not bark in the campaign, are even more fraught. As children’s secretary, Balls made anti-elitist noises against faith schools, hidden selection, middle-class manipulation of admissions and more. Many in the Labour ranks instinctively agree with him. This lack of interest in the upper middle classes (which is what it is) neglects the post-Blair coalition that defined new Labour at its most successful. If the party takes the easy road of opposing Lib-Con reforms on the NHS, and eschewing its own reformist thinking in the same area, it will tie itself to a public sector base at the very time it needs to retain a wide appeal across the country to win back marginal seats.
Seeking to avoid strife, the candidates nonetheless need an appetite for argument. Everyone agrees, for instance, that the party responded late and uncertainly to concerns about immigration. Yet no one has yet articulated where new Labour went wrong in embracing mass immigration in the first place, and whether its halfway-house solution is the correct one.
In power, it became the party of the strong state against individual civil liberties, as we faced up to the terror threat. Now the pressure is on the coalition to make its more libertarian position credible in government: what goes around comes around. However, a rising Labour generation that watched the debacle of the 42-days detention bill cannot be immune from doubts about the oddity of a centre-left party being the more draconian on surveillance and liberties.
All this is before uncertainties over what kind of person Labour needs as its figurehead. The ultra-smooth combination of Clegg and David Cameron is making even some modernisers wonder whether another nice fortysomething Oxbridge chap is what Labour requires. Personally I’d take that risk. The party cannot afford to indulge the myth that modern communication skills and a sense of social ease don’t count. It tested that to destruction with Gordon.
“No civil war,” chorus the combatants. But neither can they afford to leave untouched the dust and debris Labour has accumulated in office. Spring cleaning is the first item on the post-defeat agenda. Wanted: new broom. Must sweep clean.