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Come on, Labour – stop beating yourselves up about losing

As Labour’s top dogs square up for the leadership contest, it’s time for much-needed debate and poli

"I'm booking guests for a discussion on the Labour leadership contest and the future of the party," the BBC radio producer said to me on the phone the other day. "Might you be free?"

I presume there will be lots more of these calls in the coming months. The post-mortems on Labour's defeat and the frenzied speculation over the party leadership continue. Pressure groups, trade unions and think tanks jostle with each other to host conferences with titles such as "Next Steps for Labour" and "A New Hope", where activists hold their heads in their hands and speakers demand "renewal" and "reform".

Journalists - including this one - offer advice from the sidelines. Pollsters conduct focus groups on the main leadership contenders. Meanwhile, former cabinet ministers line up with funereal faces to compete with each other to sound more gloomy than the last about the election result. Labour's defeat was "catastrophic", says John Denham. "This is the second worst result for us since universal suffrage," says Ed Miliband. "We lost, and lost badly," says his elder brother, David.

No landslide alert

Yes, Labour lost. But lost badly? Not quite.

The result could - and perhaps should - have been much, much worse. Despite 13 years in office, the most unpopular prime minister in living memory and the worst recession since the war, the party's core vote held up in Scotland and the north of England, not to mention London, where Labour gained the most votes and seats. Labour foot soldiers in marginal constituencies fought back against the financial onslaught launched by the Tory deputy chairman and non-dom donor Michael Ashcroft. Against all the odds, Birmingham Edgbaston stayed red. So did Harrow West. And Westminster North.

No, May 2010 for Labour was not the equivalent of May 1997 for the Tories. This was no landslide defeat. Nor was it a 1983-style meltdown. Labour did not crash to third place in the popular vote. And the party under Gordon Brown won more seats in 2010 (258) than it did under Neil Kinnock in 1992 (229). Above all else, David Cameron's Conservatives were denied the Commons majority that they had long assumed would be theirs, and Dave's coronation had to be put on hold for five fraught days until he sealed a humiliating deal with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.
Labour can bounce back from this defeat. That is what makes this leadership contest so fascinating and so important. On 25 September 2010, at the party's annual conference in Manchester, Labour will unveil its shiny new leader. And on 8 May 2015, that man - and, given the current crop of declared and putative candidates, it will be a white, fortysomething, Oxbridge-educated man - could easily be striding through the door of No 10.
So it is crucial that Labour gets this right.

The decision by the party's National Executive Committee to hold a longer contest through the summer is to be applauded. The lesson of British postwar political history is clear - no leader of the opposition elected immediately after a general election defeat has ever gone on to become prime minister. Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Cameron were all elected later in the parliamentary cycle; Kinnock and William Hague were chosen straight away.

There were some Labour figures on the right of the party pushing to have a new leader installed by mid-July - a move that would have favoured David Miliband, the fresh-faced former foreign secretary and (in the words of one of his backers) "the clear front-runner". The D Miliband camp now tells me it "welcomes" a longer contest as an opportunity for greater debate and discussion.

Others disagree. "What's the point of de­laying?" one former minister said to me. "We know who the candidates are and where they all stand." I'm not sure we do. Where, for example, does Ed Balls stand on Trident? Is David Miliband a supporter of proportional representation? Would Ed Miliband bring troops home from Afghanistan? Is Andy Burnham, another possible candidate, in favour of the private finance initiative? Labour Party members deserve full and frank answers to such questions, and so does the public. I suspect the candidates themselves, liberated from the constraints of government and of collective responsibility, will be keen to differentiate themselves from each other and speak their minds.

As Jon Cruddas, the influential backbencher who ruled himself out of the race on 17 May, has mischievously observed: "You have to wonder what terrible arguments must have raged across government as those who now run from the record of the administration vented their fury at decisions they now decry."

New, improved formula

It is time for the candidates to come clean. Much has been said about the "Cain and Abel" nature of this contest, pitting the Miliband brothers against each other. Then there was the mini-row over Yvette Cooper's decision to stand aside for her husband, Ed Balls, to run as their family's leadership candidate. But these are distractions. This contest has to be a battle of ideas. Does the Labour Party have a new and improved formula for reconciling social justice with economic efficiency? Can old-style social democracy tackle the twin economic and climate crises? Did the party shift too far to the right under Blair and Brown? And what were the root causes of the election defeat, aside from the predictable public appetite for "change"?

Happily, from Labour's point of view, time is on the party's side. But it must be used wisely. As Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, wrote recently: "We may learn little if, before anybody has properly studied this complex election, everybody just says what they thought already, repeating their favourite leftist or New Labour mantras, about losing C2s over immigration, or failing to inspire with Labour values."

For 16 years, New Labour has tolerated little debate or discussion. In opposition, the party has to restore its internal democracy, from the bottom up, encouraging participation and community involvement. The coming months provide the perfect opportunity for reflection and deliberation - not to mention much-needed contrition. The race for Labour leader is on, and the contest could be as open, volatile and unpredictable as the general election itself.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next