We need a progressive alliance

New Labour’s mistake was to change the ends of Labour politics, not the means. To avoid the disaster

I am part of the Labour tribe. My family comes from the tribe, as do many of my friends. But I fear my tribe is dying. Tribes that don't adapt in the right ways always do. The final days of this election campaign will be critical in deciding whether the Labour tribe is to face extinction.

Two tribes used to wage war. Back in 1951, 97 per cent of the British electorate voted either Labour or Tory. By 2005, the figure had plummeted to 68 per cent. Today, we are in a genuine three-party election, in which Labour, according to many polls, is trailing third.

One reason for this change is that we live in a world of extraordinary complexity. New technologies and different cultures have transformed what we think and what we do. New Labour was an attempt to deal with this complexity, this fluidity and these new times. But to do so, it mistakenly changed the ends of Labour's politics, not the means.

Instead of a journey to even a mildly socialist and more equal society, New Labour instead limited itself to softening the effects of neoliberalism and slowing its tendency to growing inequality. Critically, in this new world, the market would be prioritised over the interests of society and the inherent conflict between the two denied.

What was never questioned was the means. The method would stay doggedly the same. Total power could and would be amassed with as little as 22 per cent of the potential vote. The party itself would be bypassed, the whips would be dominant and other progressive parties and forces disdained or ignored. It was no longer socialism but, whatever it was, it was what a Labour government did.

All of this is shorthand for helping to understand the big story of the campaign: the Liberal Democrat surge. People want change. They have seen through David Cameron and instead have gone for Nick Clegg. But the surge could still hand victory to the Tories unless it is understood and responded to in the right way.

Where does this leave us in the week before polling day? Labour remains the critical vehicle for progressive hopes, and its victory would be the best result. However, no one believes that an outright majority is possible. So, if we can't win outright, we have to do the second-best thing and stop the Tories.

We must understand that the election will be won or lost in 100-plus Labour/Tory marginals. That number has increased because the Lib Dem surge has made more Labour seats vulnerable. The campaign has a clear and present danger: that progressive voters, although they are a majority, will, as in 1983, 1987 and 1992, split their vote and let the Tories in.

This means that thousands of Lib Dem voters have to be persuaded to vote Labour. But to achieve this, Labour has to show that it knows the game has changed. It has to be much more open to coalition politics and say that a genuine proportional voting system must be an option at a referendum, not just the Alternative Vote, as Labour is proposing.

In addition, Labour must accept the inevitable yin and yang of such a deal - which means that Labour voters should vote for the Lib Dems in Lib Dem/Tory marginals. Tactical voting has to be just that: tactical, rather than a random series of anti-Tory votes. Such a deal has the dual benefit of maximising the Labour vote and minimising the number of Tory MPs.

Changing the rules

Andrew Adonis, Peter Hain and Alan Johnson have called on Lib Dem voters to back Labour where otherwise it would mean a Tory win. In an interview with the Independent on 21 April, Gordon Brown himself made a plea for a "progressive alliance" of natural Labour and Lib Dem supporters to join forces to keep the Tories out of power.

Clegg won't say which party he will back as he tries to win over voters from both Labour and the Tories. But it would be impossible for him to back Cameron in any sustained way. His own party would desert him. The Orange Book faction is heavily outnumbered by a democratic party that is essentially composed of lefties: they are different culturally from the Labour tribe but are resolutely anti-Tory.

If the Conservatives are denied power again, they will turn in on themselves. The Cameronites will blame the rest of the party for not modernising enough and the rest of the party will blame them for going too far. A party that exists to govern will have failed in its task. The country will be wide open for the centre left. The prize is huge.

If we don't stop the Tory party, it won't be us tribal activists who feel the pain, but the weak and the marginalised, who will find out the true nature of Cameron's compassionate Conservatism. I love my tribe and I know it has to change if it is to have a future in which it can get the relationship between society and market right through pluralism and empowerment.

New Labour changed the ends when it should have modernised its means. This failure is one big reason a tidal wave is sweeping through our political system.

There is still time, just, to avoid disaster and secure an unlikely fourth opportunity to shape events. But the tribe has to ride the wave or be swept away by it.

Neal Lawson is the chair of Compass