In the aftermath of election defeat, Labour seems to be acting on at least
some of the lessons of recent history. But there is little to suggest that any of the declared candidates
for the leadership have fully grasped the changed situation that now confronts them.
The leadership contest this time, with multiple candidates and a four
month-long campaign, shows that the party at least recognises this time that a period of reflection is essential.
There is to be no repeat of the uncontested coronation of Gordon Brown. While the 2010 defeat was
on a smaller scale than might have been expected, there is clearly a need for a clear-out of a leadership that led the party
down a cul-de-sac and wasted the greatest opportunity offered to a potentially reforming government since the Attlee government
at the end of the Second World War.
And that is precisely where most of the candidates are immediately seen to struggle. It
is to be expected, perhaps even inevitable, that after thirteen years in government any candidate with the required experience
and standing in the party will be irredeemably associated with the record of the Blair/Brown government. Yet
making a decisive break with that past is what is now needed.
This is not just a matter of acknowledging the mistakes that in the end disqualified Labour
from re-election, though those failures – the shocking invasion of Iraq, the sickening subservience to the City, the
“intense relaxation” about widening inequality, the complicity in torture –must be repudiated.
Some of the declared candidates have – somewhat belatedly – begun that process, particularly in relation
to the Iraq invasion. But there is also the small matter of a failed economic policy which has resulted
in a serious structural imbalance and a gaping hole in the national accounts.
It may be, too, that the voters have signalled a reaction against
the continued pretension to a world role that marked the Blair premiership, and have decided that what they want instead of
foreign adventures is an administration that focuses on the unexciting but important business of providing competent, fair
and representative government to a medium-sized and mature democracy, perhaps more akin to the Scandinavian model.
It is not all bad news for Labour.
The election result – with the Tory failure to secure a majority despite the most favourable circumstances imaginable
– suggests strongly that the country did not wish to return to what Tory strategists must have hoped were their Conservative
roots. On the contrary, the experience of the global financial crisis, the reality of global warming, and
the sickening spectacle of the City’s greed and selfishness seem to have had their impact. In the
broadest sense, the voters have understood that the era of “grab what you can” and the devil take the hindmost,
whether that means one’s fellow citizens or the planet, is over. That almost subterranean shift in
sentiment should work powerfully in Labour’s favour.
But a new leadership must grasp that the world has changed. The 2010 election showed
that the voters are not in the mood for a “strong”, “winner-takes-all” government of the kind that
New Labour was and aspired to be. The election has produced a government that will be quite different from
its predecessors – less tribal, and more inclusive, responsive and consultative. Whatever their eventual
judgment of this particular coalition, the voters may well like what they see in this new form of collaboration.
So the new political context will require
a different kind of government, one that will more effectively represent ordinary people and the wider and longer-term interest,
and pay less attention to the rich and powerful, or to the political parties’ own interests. Politicians
will need to be more humble. With electoral reform, a “hung” parliament and minority-led or
coalition government could well become the norm. Labour will have to show that it is better equipped to
deliver this kind of human-sized and responsive government than would a reformed and more moderate Tory party under David
Cameron or than Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems who will be pitching themselves as the progressive alternative to the Tories.
That will require a quite different mindset from that of New
Labour. It seems doubtful at this early stage of the leadership context whether any of the candidates is
ready or able to make the leap of vision and understanding that is needed. We need leaders who can see the shape of the future
and can lift their eyes to longer horizons.
David Miliband and Ed Balls are too much prisoners of their respective Blairite or Brownite pasts,
though Ed Miliband is at least starting to use some fresh language that might just herald fresh thinking as well.
Andy Burnham has immediately struck the right note in signalling a break with “stage-managed” politics
but has a long way to go if he is to show that that means better than just tightening controls on immigration.
The candidatures of Diane Abbott or John McDonnell,
if they materialise, will be welcome in terms of widening the debate but their re-assertion of familiar values will be weakened
by the long odds against their election. Jon Cruddas would have been a valuable addition to the lists.
If Labour is to grasp the moment, the next four months will have to be put to good use. The party
needs time for reflection; the candidates do as well. We can expect further movements in their positions.
21 May 2010.
This article was published in the online Guardian on 24 May.