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…