The 2015 battle bus. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Leader: Labour has to choose between reform and irrelevance

It seems as if some on the left prefer the ideological purity of opposition to the pragmatism of winning elections.

Ed Miliband challenged his brother, David, for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2010 because he believed that it was his destiny to become prime minister and, as his confidants liked to put it, to rewire capitalism for a new era of deepening inequality. Convinced that the financial crisis and the consequent Great Recession had created a “social-democratic moment” rather than, as it turned out, a preoccupation with fiscal discipline and balanced budgets, Mr Miliband steered his party to a defeat that was all the more shocking for many of his supporters because, misled by the polls, they believed to the last that he would end up in Downing Street. Yet, had this happened, it would have been no victory at all. A Miliband minority government would not have had a resounding mandate for economic and political transformation: it would have been dependent on the whims of the Scottish National Party, Labour’s rival.

This magazine had long been sceptical about Mr Miliband’s leadership. Last autumn, we warned that he was leading ­Labour to defeat, not because it gave us pleasure to do so but because the most vulnerable in society are not best served by Labour being out of power. It seems as if some on the left, however, prefer the ideological purity of futile opposition over the pragmatic task of winning elections.

In our issue of 1 May, in which we made our election endorsement of Labour, we warned that Mr Miliband had not “changed the character of his party enough” and that he had “not created a sentiment from which truly transformative policies could have flowed”. He had argued “simultaneously for more austerity and more socialism”. Nor had he found a way of channelling the aspirations of working-class and skilled lower-middle-class voters in the Midlands, the Home Counties and southern England. In our view, Labour must be the party not only of social justice, but of social mobility.

Surrounded by a small group of male academics and advisers (whom the shadow cabinet minister Michael Dugher calls “pointy-heads” on page 36), Mr Miliband offered a highly theoretical critique of globalisation’s failings. But it was as if, at times, he was addressing a group of insiders rather than seeking to build a broad coalition of support throughout these islands. The result was a devastating defeat for Labour. As soon as he became leader, Mr Miliband was eager to distance himself from the Blair years, even the successes. This was a strategic mistake and angered many of his MPs. Unlike Tony Blair, Mr Miliband seldom spoke about education (even though state academies were the creation of New Labour) or Britain’s place in the world. Far too late, he attempted to reframe Labour as the party of fiscal rectitude by including a “Budget Responsibility Lock” in the manifesto, months ­after forgetting to mention the deficit in his party conference speech. In the end, when it mattered, Labour was not trusted to run the economy more competently than the Tories.

On 11 May, David Miliband criticised his brother for allowing himself “to be portrayed as moving [the party] backwards” and said that Labour “will not win” unless it “embraces aspiration and inclusion”. Other senior figures from the so-called Blairite wing of the party have been much bolder in their denunciations of what they perceive to have been Labour’s wrong turn under Ed Miliband, who, in our view at least, was correct to identify inequality as one of the great moral challenges of our time.

We are urging no return to Blairism. It was the creation of a certain time and a peculiar set of circumstances. What applied then may not work today. What is necessary is a period of sustained reflection. “Labour has a cultural problem to resolve,” Andrew Marr writes on page 32. “It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It’s vastly more important than who the next leader is.”

Meanwhile, the Tories have returned to power with a slim majority that very few – an exception being our own Peter Wilby, as he reminds us on page nine – thought they were capable of winning. Already some trenchant right-wingers, such as John Whittingdale, the new Culture Secretary (and scourge of the BBC), have been appointed to the cabinet. We face the prospect of a divisive EU referendum and £12bn of hastily and ideologically enforced cuts to the welfare budget, which will hurt the weakest and poorest. And the unity of the United Kingdom as a multinational polity remains imperilled. This is what defeat feels like. Has Labour got what it takes to absorb the pain and return stronger, ready to win? Or does it face another long ­period in the wilderness, speaking only to itself?

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org