Let’s be honest with ourselves, last Thursday was a disaster for the Labour Party. Activists I speak to are shell-shocked and understandably so. British progressives find themselves facing up to 5 years of a Conservative majority government having been convinced that their man would win. That was, of course, in large part because of a polling calamity that pointed to a hung parliament – but more on that from me another time.
Thoughts now will quickly turn to the leadership contest and why Labour lost. Given the scale of the defeat this leadership (and deputy leadership) campaign promises to be that bit more fractious than the last. Tony Blair has reacted quickly, urging Labour to reclaim the centre ground. Others, such as Owen Jones, urge Labour further to the left. Expect more of this.
The ‘Blair issue’ in particular is one that the Labour Party has struggled to put to bed. His supporters rightly point out that Labour has never had a more successful leader. His three thumping victories remain impressive, the worst of which David Cameron would still be jealous of. His detractors point out that he remains unpopular with the public and key policy positions on Europe, immigration and Iraq remain contentious at best to this day.
This all matters because it is through the prism of Blair and how candidates relate to him that this leadership election will be seen. Indeed, enemies of Labour, both to the left and right, will try to ensure this is so. Contenders will be labelled. ‘Pro-Blair’ candidates will be viewed suspiciously by many in the party; overtly ‘anti-Blair’ candidates will be viewed suspiciously by many in the country. Candidates will seek to move beyond these labels quickly but they will be there and they matter.
Of course, Miliband didn’t lose because he was a ‘Brownite’ or because of ‘Milibandism’. The public do not think that way. To me there were three key issues. The public didn’t see him as a credible Prime Minister, they didn’t see Labour as credible on the economy, and the party fought a campaign that it was far too comfortable with. Add the fear of the SNP holding a weak Labour government and weak Prime Minister to ransom and England turned away.
The uncomfortable truth is that Labour was simply not seen as a credible party of government nor Miliband a credible leader. The Conservatives and Cameron were. Like it or not, it is here where the Labour party must learn from Blair. Not through writing him love letters or harking back to the 1990s, Labour seeks government in a different context now – not after 13 years of Conservative government. Instead, it must understand what it was that made him successful and apply those lessons now.
Credibility in government is vital and right now Labour is sorely lacking in it – especially on the economy. Whoever the next Labour leader is must take head on the idea that Labour caused the financial crash. It is an argument that the party has been far too soft on and is losing. Or, if that leader believes that Blair and Brown’s spending left the UK too exposed, then say so and explain why the next Labour government will be different. The public must feel that they can trust Labour in government again.
Key to this is that Labour steps out of its comfort zone in the policy areas it addresses. There is nothing wrong with campaigning on the NHS or zero-hours contracts but it is too easy. The next Labour leader must look beyond the party’s core policy areas and take on the Conservatives on in its own patch whilst addresses public concerns about Labour. It is doubtful, for example, that the British public will elect a future Labour government whilst the party is seen as ‘at war’ with business. Areas such as foreign affairs or welfare must be debated. No policy area should be off-limits, no position taken because it is simply ‘what progressives ‘should think’.
One such policy area of opportunity is in defence. It is highly unlikely that the Conservatives will continue to meet NATO’s target of member nations spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence and Conservative backbenchers are in uproar about it. Polling shows that though defence is not top of the public’s list of spending priorities cuts in this area are a great cause for concern. This is especially true when cuts impact upon British troops or national security. This is just one policy area but it is an area that is not traditional Labour territory. The more effectively Labour occupies such areas, the more it can slowly win back public trust that it is a ‘government-in-waiting’, prepared to deal with all policy areas, not just the easiest ones.
As credibility is slowly won back then Labour will get the public’s ‘permission’ to be transformative again. Much is made of the idea of ‘aspiration’ in politics but this just means recognising what the public want from government and giving it to them. Labour still has a potential majority here. Most people want a good job, a home to live in and for government to help them by providing good public services. Dealing with inequality is fine, important even, but it is part of a wider story about how Labour will help working people get on – it is not the story alone. This is key.
However, none of this matters without credibility. Here we return to Blair. He wasn’t the perfect candidate in 1997 but in taking on his own party over Clause 4 and shifting traditional Labour policy positions on areas such as law and order he earned the right to be heard. The public could see him in Downing Street. When Labour chooses its new leader, it would be wise to keep this in mind. The party needs a leader that passes the ‘COBRA test,’ meaning can you see them in Downing Street handling a crisis or chairing Cabinet? If not, move on.
None of this is easy, nor does it explain how Labour can simultaneously recover in England and Scotland. The task is huge. It is not, however, impossible. We should expect plenty of gloating in the coming weeks in the Conservative press and plenty of talk about how Labour is ‘finished’. PMQs between now and when the new Labour leader is crowned will be painful viewing (no change there then). However, 5 years is a long time in politics. David Cameron’s majority is not that big, his party faces a difficult time over Europe and the next General Election will be fought by a different Prime Minister. Even perceptions of economic competence, so tough to earn, can evaporate quickly – just ask John Major.
So Labour can win in 2020, but it must re-establish its credibility and relevance with the British people first and choose a leader that understands this and most of all is seen as a winner. Time will tell if the party moves in this direction. I hope it does, the country needs it to.