This guest post from Peter Kellner is an extract from the Fabian Review Party Conference Special, published tomorrow.
To avoid charges of defeatist treason, let me start with a statement of the blindingly obvious. Much can happen between now and the next general election. Labour is unpopular, but most voters lack enthusiasm for the Conservatives. (That’s the message not just from YouGov polls but from the European Parliament elections and the Norwich North by-election in July.) David Cameron will be tested hard between now and polling day, and might fail the test. A Tory victory is far from certain.
But, by the same token, we cannot ignore the danger that the Conservatives might win, and banish Labour to opposition. For obvious reasons, we can’t set up seminars and training sessions to prepare for life after defeat with the ardour that we prepared before 1997 for life in government. This would send out the message that we had thrown in the towel. But unless we start thinking, quietly but seriously, about how to act if we do find ourselves in opposition, then we could end up turning a one-off defeat into long-term disaster.
Remember what happened thirty years ago. Soon after Margaret Thatcher replaced James Callaghan as Prime Minister, the air turned scarlet with accusations of betrayal. I recall going to a party meeting that summer in north London where the assault was led by one party activist who charged the defeated Government with deserting socialist principles; he demanded a return to our historic mission of dismantling capitalism. He is now a stalwart, and notably moderate, member of Labour’s benches in the House of Lords.
Once the betrayal thesis was up and running, the party’s left-wing was rampant. Aided by the cynically-cast votes of some MPs who went on to leave the party and set up the Social Democrats, Michael Foot became party leader. A few months later Tony Benn came close to ousting Denis Healey as deputy leader. Party conferences and national executive meetings became noisy battlegrounds in a civil war that lasted until the late Eighties, when Neil Kinnock finally managed to extrude Militant, curb the influence of such destructive people as Arthur Scargill, and restore Labour’s relevance to late twentieth century British society. After that, it still took another decade to return to power.
Should Labour lose next year, history could well repeat itself. The betrayal speech, 2010-style, almost writes itself: “Lies about the Iraq war… George Bush’s poodle… Cosying up to the rich… Failure to make Britain more equal… Handing public services to private businesses… Billions for the bankers, peanuts for the poor… Too many Labour MPs out of touch with ordinary voters… Time to scrap New Labour and return to our radical roots…”
The worrying thing is that such a charge sheet draws on enough fragments of truth to win over a fair number of Labour supporters – just as there was plenty of ammunition thirty years ago to attack the record of the Callaghan Government. What was missing then was any compensating account of that Government’s achievements. There weren’t many – but they weren’t negligible either. They included: a new consensus on Britain’s relations with the (then) Common Market; new, radical laws to outlaw race and sex discrimination; the introduction of child benefits; a 20 per cent increase in real terms in state pensions; and new benefits for disabled people. Yet, in the battles that crippled Labour in the Eighties, these achievements were forgotten. Shame and revenge replaced pride and respect as the currency of internal party debate.
This time, Labour should be better prepared. There is much to be proud of – far more than in 1979. For a start, we should remember that Labour won three clear majorities in a row: something the party has never achieved before. And plenty of good things have been done over the past 12 years: the minimum wage, devolution, shorter hospital waiting lists, better schools, less crime, tax credits, winter fuel allowance, Sure Start, NHS Direct, greater employment rights, civil partnerships, freedom of information, free museum entry, right to roam, much more overseas aid, many more women MPs and ministers than ever before – and so on.
So: any post-defeat fight back must start with pride in Labour’s achievements. But that’s only a start; it’s not a strategy. If we do nothing more than remind ourselves and the public of the successes of the past 12 years, we will be condemned as a nostalgic, backward-looking party with nothing fresh to say about the future.
Rather, pride should be employed to secure a number of vital, intermediate objectives: to inoculate the party against the virus of the betrayal thesis; to prevent the Conservatives persuading a generation of voters, as they did throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, that Labour Governments are congenitally incompetent; and to stimulate productive discussions about what future Labour Governments should do. By the time he became party leader in 1994, Tony Blair had to convince voters that he was making an entirely new offer to voters. Hence ‘New Labour’. Next time, should Labour lose the coming election, there will be no need to disown the past. The new ideas the party will need should, in the main, extend the ideas of the past decade, not repudiate them.
Which ideas? That the market alone will never completely solve the problems of poverty, housing and climate change; that, nevertheless, market mechanisms can help us to achieve social objectives; that public services must and can be made more efficient and responsive, without suppressing the dedication and vocational passions of teachers, nurses and doctors; that Britain needs to work more closely with the European Union and other international bodies to achieve our goals.
Above all, Labour needs to rediscover its passion for equality – and define what this means for the 21st century. We know now, if we didn’t before, that in a global economy there are huge forces widening the gap between rich and poor. Closing the gap inside one country is next to impossible. But if equality of outcome is out, equality of opportunity is insufficient. Other concepts should be explored, such as equality of access and James Purnell’s recent proposal, equality of capability. One clear need is to develop forms of equality that are independent of income: a better health service, improved state schools, more reliable public transport, clean air, crime-free streets, more attractive public spaces, better care for the elderly. If we can’t close the gap in money between rich and poor, we should devise ways to make money matter less.
All in all, it’s a full agenda that, properly developed, could help limit the next Conservative Government, should Cameron win next year, to a single term. In the Eighties, just about the only thing different wings of the Labour Party agreed on was that we needed to start from scratch. The argument was about what kind of ground zero we should occupy: the anti-capitalist version mapped out by the left, or the modernising version mapped out by Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The good guys finally won – but the battles helped us to remain in the wilderness for 18 years.
Should we lose next year (and I still hope my thesis will not need to be put to the test), we shall have a choice: remain proud of what Labour has done since 1997, build on our achievements and prepare for a return to government; or descend into another ground-zero-defining war and accept its terrible consequences.
Peter Kellner is President of YouGov
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