Monday 2 August 2010

How not to be an opposition

Tim Bale offers a stern warning against complacency in the just published Fabian Review, and attempts to instil some hard-headedness into a Labour Party adjusting to life in opposition. Bale literally wrote the book on the Tories long spell in opposition, so we asked him if any of their experiences were transferable and whether he could draw some lessons for Labour.

Read the full piece here.

So which of Bale’s elephant traps is Labour walking into and which are being avoided? One of the Bale plan's main points is acceptance: Labour needs to fully understand how badly it lost and just how unpopular it is. This, broadly speaking, is where the party is – the contenders for the leadership have all accepted it at hustings, sentiments former ministers John Denham and David Lammy echo in Fabian Review articles in the same issue.

One of the big insights to come out of Bale’s book – as Sunder noted before the election – was to go late and go long with a leadership contest after a defeat. Michael Howard staying on in 2005 meant they got David Cameron rather than David Davis, with huge positive implications for their electability. Had Gordon Brown stayed on for six months before triggering a contest, the candidates would have been battle tested in opposition, giving the selectorate better information on which to base their choice - as well as giving time for the Coalition’s honeymoon to fizzle out and free up media space. Labour went for a kind of haphazard middle ground on this, with the initial early date for a snap election pushed back to party conference - which is better than nothing but perhaps still not long enough to have the debate the party needs. Bale clearly thinks so: "It’s too late to advise against rushing into a leadership contest that might prevent you from conducting a proper postmortem on your defeat."

Another point about the leader that Bale makes is that if they get off to a bad start, the party must show no mercy and despatch them post-haste: “You have to have the guts to ditch them, rulebook or no rulebook, as soon as you possibly can”. This runs counter to prevailing Labour sentiment and psychology, which is famously averse to sacking its leaders. Interestingly though, Steve Richards notes in a recent column that Labour may have acquired this kind of steeliness and is not in the mood for wallowing self-indulgently in opposition:
I make one prediction on the basis of discussions with quite a lot of Labour MPs. Such is their loathing for the coalition that they are deadly serious about returning to power as soon as possible. If their next leader flops in the first year or so there will be no sentimentality. He will be removed.

It’s less clear that Bale’s advice that Labour needs to get real on the economy – which will always be the main issue but even more so now – is being heeded. The main task for the new leader in October is to articulate a credible and compelling position on spending cuts.

Some might feel there is an element of déjà vu all over again about the recovery strategy he outlines, containing as it does a strong flavour of New Labour warmed up. But Bale makes a compelling call for Labour to face up to the realities of defeat and not to slip into the self-pity or self-delusion that so often characterised Tory choices in opposition.

1 comment:

T.N.T. said...

I've got to say, in the main I found the Bale piece just awful. I totally agree that Labour shouldn't assume all they need to do is sit and wait for the coalition to become unpopular. But the Bale piece read like it had been ghost-written by Tony Blair.

Bale operates from the very right wing neo-Blairite assumption that you shouldn't ever adopt a policy position that appears to clash with what polls say the electorate prefer, much less try to argue for any kind of new approach to economic policy, for example. Effectively Bale is saying we should let Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail dictate Labour's policy across the board.

If Labour ends up doing that under Dave Miliband - or even under Ed Miliband - then it will deserve to lose.

The elephant in the room is that a major contributory factor to why Labour only got 29% in the election was that Gordon Brown was a duff Prime Minister. It's as simple as that. Under Miliband, for example, I think they'd have been running at 35% at least. They're running at 38% in the polls now without any leader at all! Gordon was worse than nobody.

Although I hate the Blairites, on the issue of Gordon Brown's competence to lead a government I have to admit that John Hutton was absolutely right - sadly.