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6 August 2008

Dangerous times for Labour

The minimum wage, a better deal for working families, 10 years of economic stability were not an acc

By Barbara Roche

What a difference a year makes. Last summer the Tories were in complete disarray over education. David Cameron was, quite rightly, under fire for a wholesale failure of policy. Were the Conservatives in favour of abolishing grammar schools or extending them as a response to local campaigns?

Cameron and his leadership suffered a torrid period of attack from columnists and rivals in his own party. Predictions of challenge and meltdown were rife but the Tories held their nerve and came through their conference.

The sorry truth is that they have always been better than us in hanging together and sustaining themselves in power (Public school belief in a right to rule takes some beating).

Like many other Labour Party members I have spent all my adult life in the party and can’t remember it any other way. It is too easy to forget the introspection and self-destructive episodes of the Thatcher-Major years. Just as it is too easy to forget 1980’s mass unemployment, decimated communities and the destruction of public services.

We are often our own worst advocates – why are we so reluctant to proclaim our successes?

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A national minimum wage, a better deal for working families, a decade of sustained economic stability and one of the best international records on aid to developing countries did not come about by accident.

In large part they came about because of Gordon Brown. No one can doubt his strategic ability and commitment to long-term vision over short-term tactical advantage. When I started working with him at the Treasury as financial secretary, Gordon advised me to concentrate on projects that were going to last and not to be distracted by temporary events.

By the way I also found him supportive of women colleagues, not usually a fact of political life.

Now is not the time for lengthy navel gazing, loose talk of leadership challenges and a sullen conference season.

Yes, of course, I know that we have lost by-elections but the Conservatives in government lost plenty and still went on to win. Nor do I deny that Labour is facing difficult and dangerous times.

The pressure of world economic events and a resurgent and increasingly rich Tory Party mean that we will have to fight an election campaign with the political tipsters giving odds against us.

This is the time for rediscovering our vigour and reaffirming our reasons for supporting or joining the Labour Party. For me those reasons are about the importance of communal endeavour. Poll after poll shows that the public are unsure about what David Cameron stands for.

His poll ratings would be rather different if the electorate appreciated that Cameron’s core philosophy is a softer-imaged version of Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”.

But our task is not just to expose and attack our opponents’ stance but to set out a clear direction for Britain:

In an age of globalisation and highly skilled mobile labour what is the balance between maintaining a competitive edge and a fair taxation system which genuinely seeks to redistribute wealth ?

  • How do we reposition British foreign policy to take advantage of the arrival of a new American president, hopefully Barack Obama?
  • Working with local authorities and housing associations how do we build on our experience of the New Deal for Communities to promote sustainable neighbourhoods?
  • With the establishment of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Civil Partnership we now have one of the best frameworks for equality and diversity in Europe.

How do we put these issues at the centre of the political agenda?

And finally how do we bring it all together so that Labour can communicate that it is back in business? Well we need to demonstrate confidence in the values of our party and the man who was the architect of our three previous general election victories, Gordon Brown.

Barbara Roche is a former MP and Minister. She now chairs a large housing association and is a visiting university professor

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