Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Back to the future

Labour won this election on its record in government but next time we will only win on our aspirations for Britain. The reform must start now, argues Alan Milburn

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It’s almost like 5 May didn’t happen. It’s business as usual. A large Labour majority. A backbench rumble of discontent. A question mark over the prime minister’s longevity. A Conservative party searching for a new leader when it should be seeking a new purpose. A Liberal Democrat party reviewing policy but uncertain whether to tack rightwards or leftwards.

Some things, of course, have changed. The general election cost Labour some seats – and some good MPs. The Tories and Liberals gained some. The question is whether the denting of Labour’s majority – still 158 seats more than the Tories – together with Tony Blair’s eventual departure marks the beginning of the end, not just for Labour in government but for New Labour.

The answer lies, in part, on what the election results and campaign reveal. Most critically, it relies on how the three main parties respond to those results in the months to come.

So, first, the campaign. In the end it turned out to be a pretty traditional – some would say old-fashioned – scrap between Labour and the Tories, with the Liberals positioning themselves in a ringside seat to hoover up the anti-Iraq vote. Our manifesto was the most New Labour yet but the campaign itself was a straightforward fight between public services and the economy on the one side and crime and immigration on the other. New Labour as the party of aspiration and reform took a back seat in a campaign that emphasised continuity versus risk.

We deliberately played to our strengths, especially on the economy and who is best placed to run it. On public services, our attack on the Tories’ £35bn cuts plan opened up a big ideological divide, with the Conservatives increasingly perceived as a party for the few, not the many. Michael Howard’s unrelentingly negative campaign unwittingly rekindled public memories of what it is like to have the Tories in government. In that regard he was perfect for Labour: a bridge between the past and the future.

So what, then, of the result?

Tony Blair’s achievement in leading Labour to a third successive electoral success cannot be overstated. In historic terms, it is unparalleled. In essence, the electorate got what it wanted – a Labour government but with a smaller, although good, working majority. And while a five per cent drop in our share of the national vote is not comfortable for a New Labour, one-nation party, there was little comfort in the result for either the Liberals or the Tories.

For the Liberals, 5 May was hardly the springboard they hoped would take them into the 2009 or 2010 election. Their strategy was to do well enough against the Tories this time round so they could challenge for the title of main opposition party next time. Instead, they made a fatal strategic error. Opportunism got the better part of judgement. Lulled by public opposition to the Iraq war, they pitched to the left and so lost out on the right. The price they paid was that their immediate electoral target – marginal Tory seats – were neglected. Their plans for a higher-rate income tax and a local income tax cost them votes in middle England. Overall they gained just 11 seats. That included wins from Labour but losses to the Tories. The Liberals’ share of the vote rose three per cent more in seats held by Labour than in those held by the Tories. Their share of the vote in seats where they were second to the Tories rose only marginally. And, worryingly for the future, their share of the vote fell in seats they won in 2001 and where the Tories were second.

If they are to make any progress at the next election, the Liberals will have to correct their 2005 strategic failure. In 2009 or 2010, in seven of the 10 seats with majorities of under 1,000 the Liberals will be defending against the Tories. In only two will Labour
be the main challenger. The review that has now begun in the Liberal party about their tax policy is part of a wider debate they will need to have about where they position themselves. If the Liberals are to become what their over-hyped 2005 slogan claimed – the real opposition – they will need to move beyond being a party of protest to
a party of credible policy.

A similar dilemma faces the Tories. 2005 was a cataclysmically bad election for the Conservative party. They remain stuck in the doldrums at just 33 per cent of the national vote. They looked and behaved like a nasty, rightwing party hooked on privilege and the
past. The Tories have become a ghettoised party, leading only in the south-east, the east region and the south-west. Their share of the vote actually fell in the north-east, north-west, Yorkshire and Humberside, east Midlands and west Midlands. In seats that Labour won in 2001, it also fell.

Even in their safe seats there was no surge towards them.

Their Australian-led dog-whistle strategy failed. Indeed, it is a testimony to their lack of popularity and confidence that the Tory campaign did not so much ask people to vote Conservative as to send Tony Blair a message. A message boomeranged back to the Conservatives: you need to change before you become electable.

The Tories’ problem is as much cultural as it is political. They simply do not look and feel like a modern party, in touch and comfortable with modern Britain. So while polls indicate the Tories were neck-and-neck with Labour among male voters, the Tories lost support among women. Labour opened up a big lead here as our focus on childcare, health and education contrasted with the shrillness of the Tory campaign.

The internal debate they are having and their election of a new leader gives the Tories a chance to reposition themselves. If the outcome is a reformed Conservative party, both moderate and modern, that could help the Tories and harm Labour. Worryingly for them, however, past leadership elections have not delivered what is needed: clarity about what the Tories stand for. Are they for low taxes or for high spending? Are they liberal or authoritarian? Are they modern or traditional? Are they a party of the right or of the centre? Unless and until they have answers to these fundamental questions, the Tories will remain stuck in permanent opposition. They are either a populist, rightwing party or a centrist, modern party. They cannot be both at one and the same time.

2005 was the last stand of Thatcherism. It lost. The Conservative party needs to learn the lesson and move on. The Tories have to reform and modernise themselves if they are
to win again. It should concentrate the minds of Tory MPs and members that in 2009 or 2010 they will be defending 12 seats with majorities of under 1,000. Labour is in second place in 11 of them.

What, then, of Labour? In the circumstances, it was the best result we could get. It was also far from uniform: there was a remarkable degree of diversity in the results. Labour won in all age groups bar those over 55 but the Liberals put on the biggest increases among young voters as Iraq took its toll. Labour’s share of the vote fell in nine of the 10 constituencies with the highest concentration of student voters. And in some – but not all – seats with a large Muslim population our vote also slumped. Perhaps most worryingly of all, Labour lost up to nine per cent of its 2001 support among aspirant C2 voters.

There was a silver lining. Over 60 seats saw a swing to Labour, including in a string of Yorkshire and Pennine marginals. Labour actually held four of its 10 most vulnerable seats. Although we lost some good, hard-working MPs, a track record of consistent campaigning over a period of years paid off for many others.

Labour’s biggest falls took place in the eastern region and in London. In the north of the capital, the Liberals did us damage but in places like Wimbledon and Hammersmith votes went straight from Labour to Tory. In suburban London, a nine-point lead over the Tories in 2001 turned into a one-point deficit in 2005. Here, concerns about tax, crime and immigration were at their highest.

The same was true in spades about the south-east, where Labour slumped to third place. In south-east marginal seats a 10-point lead over the Tories in 2001 fell to just two points in 2005. In the early 1990s, a ‘southern discomfort’ factor cost Labour elections. Action is needed to prevent the 2005 swing from Labour in the south becoming a tidal wave that could do the same in the future.

So, while it is true that in safer Labour seats there was a larger swing to the Liberals – rising with ethnic diversity and higher education – that must not blind us to the real problem: how to defend seats and win seats from the Tories. Of course, we need to win votes back from the Liberals but our principal enemy remains the Conservatives.

At the next election we will be defending 20 seats with majorities of below 1,000. Thirteen are in London and the south-east. In 16, the Tories are the challengers. Indeed, of Labour’s 50 most marginal seats next time round, 42 have the Tories in second place. Similarly, of the 20 most marginal seats Labour will be seeking to win back, 16 are held by the Tories. And then there are the boundary reviews which are likely to cost us seats.

Winning a fourth consecutive election will be a big challenge. Of course, much will depend on how the Tories and Liberals respond to the last election. But, as ever, Labour’s fate is in our own hands.

We can win again but to do so New Labour will need to renew itself in office. Tempting though it might be to stand idly by enjoying the spectacle of the Tories and Liberals going through a period of soul-searching, there are huge risks in Labour becoming the business as usual party. Already politics has slipped back into its old ways. Labour is getting on with the business of governing but winning a fourth election requires us to be political, not administrative.

With both the Tories and Liberals potentially repositioning themselves to our detriment, New Labour cannot become the status quo party. At times we have looked like that. It is not a position we can sustain through another campaign. Next time round, after 12 years or more of Labour in government, time for a change is likely to have far stronger public appeal. To win we will need to have as strong a claim on the future as we will have on delivery in the past.

The public support Labour’s values but the longer we are in government the more we need to push for change and be clear of purpose. Just as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are leading on the global stage towards a just settlement for Africa, so we need to be as decisive on the domestic stage. To get heard above the din of media cynicism and public weariness, everything we do in these next few years needs to scream out loud that our purpose is a society where every individual, regardless of class or background, gets the chance to succeed. Getting Britain moving socially – speeding social mobility – will allow us to compete and win economically.

By reclaiming this banner of progressive radicalism we can outflank the Liberals. So, rather than walking away from the tuition fees policy to win back Labour-Liberal switchers, instead we should extol its merits as a progressive measure opening up opportunities traditionally only available to a few. And we can outflank the Tories by insisting that people have a responsibility to help themselves as well as a right to be helped.

For most people, a fair deal means a helping hand not a hand out. A New Labour fair deal is not unconditional. It has to be earned: there for those who are willing to put in the effort. This maxim should be our guide map to re-aligning New Labour with those aspirant voters who left us because they thought we had left them and were no longer on their side.

Nowadays, people want to get on with their own lives, able to make personal choices for themselves and their families. Equally, they want to know they are not on their own in facing the challenges the modern world brings. That’s why Britain elected Labour, not the Tories. People wanted a government working for hard-working families and pensioners, rather than for a privileged few. That requires us to break down barriers that stand in the way of people getting on. It means helping individuals realise their own aspirations for progress. The job of progressive politics today is to empower the individual as an individual. In an age when people are more informed and more inquiring, with deference lower and expectations higher, reverting to the old, big-state interventionist solutions could only set back the cause of Labour.

So we cannot let up on reform. We need social reforms to help families balance work and home life. We need constitutional reforms to empower communities and devolve power. We need welfare reforms to help pensioners in old age and get more people off benefit into work. We need economic reforms that prioritise deregulation and flexibility, home ownership and business innovation. We need public service reforms that give individual users more of a choice and the voluntary and private sectors more of a role. We need criminal justice reforms so that the system is on the side of the victim and to tackle illegal immigration and asylum abuse. And, if we are to make progressive change irreversible, we need to keep our foot on the accelerator of change. Whatever the temptations, we should not put our foot on the brake.

After we lost the 1992 election, many people thought they would never see a Labour government again. What changed was that we did. We should never forget that lesson. Tony Blair had the courage to transform his party as a first step to winning power. Realising progressive values requires them to be applied in new ways. Tony Blair’s forging of US-style economic dynamism and European social justice is making Britain a role model for other nations. And our electoral success is the envy of other progressive parties.

It would be folly to abandon this New Labour approach. Instead it should be renewed and deepened.

Our New Labour manifesto gives us the mandate to push forward with a big reform agenda. It is the programme every Labour MP stood on – so the public will expect to see it implemented in full. But it must be regarded as the minimum we need to deliver, not the maximum. The longer we are in government, the greater the need to keep on changing to keep pace with the times in which we live.

A party serving a third term has to demonstrate that it has ambition and momentum if it is to have any hope of serving a fourth.

Winning next time needs a relentless focus now on those policies and seats that will win back support in the centre ground of British politics. You only have to look at what has happened to the Tories – or remember what once happened to Labour – to know that a move away from the centre is, to coin a phrase, a move back not forward. Far from the door shutting on New Labour, it is New Labour that holds the key to a fourth election victory.

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Alan Milburn

is chair of the social mobility and child poverty commission and a former secretary of state for health

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