Labour's deep hole

Ex-minister Nick Raynsford compares Labour's plight to the Tories in 1990 when the Thatcher governme

“When you are in a hole, stop digging”. This simple, familiar advice might appear very apt for the Labour Party at this moment in time. But it prompts three questions fundamental to Labour’s future:

1. Just how deep a hole are we in?
2. What type of digging should stop? And
3. What other activity is necessary if we are to get out?

Let’s take them in turn.

After the Glasgow East by-election, no one can doubt that Labour is in a deep hole. This is much more serious than mid-term blues which may be expected to evaporate as the General Election approaches.

But much less clear is the inevitability of defeat. The historical parallel is closer to 1990 than 1995. While the Thatcher Government was deeply unpopular in 1990, losing the Eastbourne by-election on a similar swing to Glasgow East, the electorate had not yet committed to Labour as the next government. Hence John Major’s surprise victory in 1992. By 1995 the position had changed. The electorate had decisively shifted their loyalty to Tony Blair’s government-in-waiting and nothing could save John Major.

We are not yet in that position today. David Cameron has still not secured the unequivocal support of the electorate. So there still is a possible way out for Labour. But it is equally true that ill-targeted digging could actually close the potential escape route.

So what types of digging need to stop? First is the frantic search for some magic populist policy solution. There is no single ‘Get Out of Jail’ card, and it is foolish to believe that such simplistic solutions will do the trick. Indeed some are counter productive, inviting the public’s contempt by implying a desperation to “buy” support by ditching unpopular taxes or offering dubious incentives. Dangling the carrot of home ownership in front of low-income council tenants in current market conditions for example is a deeply suspect proposition.

Just as dubious is the siren call for more initiatives. One of the greatest mistakes in government is to confuse activity with outcomes. Just because ministers feel busy devising 101 new ways of tackling a problem does not guarantee the problem gets solved. Instead the public grow cynical as government rhetoric becomes increasingly divorced from reality, while practitioners grow exasperated when expected to implement yet another initiative, often before the previous one has even been evaluated.

So we have to stop inappropriate digging, and instead focus clearly on the steps necessary to extract ourselves from the hole. As David Miliband rightly stressed, we need to start by winning the argument over our record, our vision for the future and how we achieve it.

Compared with the position we inherited in 1997, today’s Britain is a better, fairer, more successful, more confident and more tolerant society. But it remains a society facing serious economic, social and environmental challenges. Labour must be seen to have both the will and the capability to meet them, and by doing so regain the trust and confidence of the public.

This will require a clear focus on key objectives rather than a plethora of initiatives. It will mean doing less but doing it better, and devolving more power and discretion from the centre to the locality and to front-line deliverers of public services.

Finally, escape depends on us turning the heat on the Tories. They have enjoyed too easy a ride in the past year, reveling in the Government’s discomfort while avoiding firm commitments on what they would do themselves.

From now until the General Election, they should be under remorseless scrutiny and pressure. Every evasion, ambiguity and contradiction on policy must be ruthlessly exposed, and the electorate left in no doubt about David Cameron’s dependence on shallow presentation skills rather than serious analysis and deliverable policies.

Nick Raynsford is MP for Greenwich and Woolwich and a former minister for local government