Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Survival instinct

If Labour wants to avoid defeat at the next election, it should examine the lessons of John Major’s government

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Should Labour seek to stay in power? The question seems daft. Yet unless a political party, from its leader to its latest recruit, knows why it is in business then the question will persist in the mysterious depths of the electorate’s subconscious. In recent months Labour has given too many indications that it may not want to stay in government. This seems bizarre as the group of ultra-rich men who now control the Tory party – Conservative MPs who only have their parliamentary income to live on call the Cameron front bench ‘Millionaires’ Row’ – have no serious alternative on offer for the problems the nation faces.

Such is the solipsistic provincialism of the Westminster press that they do not know, and thus cannot report, that every European government is experiencing a catastrophic slippage in the opinion polls as the triple tsunami of rising prices for food, fuel and credit destroy purchasing power. Tony Blair was lucky to get out when he did. Labour has taken a hard pounding under Gordon Brown but too much of our punishment has been self-inflicted. The weekend after the Glasgow East byelection was a case in point.

Party delegates attending the National Policy Forum came back stunned at the vanity of MPs, trade union leaders and, above all, ministers, who filled page after page, day after day, with attacks on the prime minister. Some went on the record in calling for a challenge to the PM. The GMB general secretary was early out of the traps in that weekend horriblis calling for new leadership.

Worse were the endless quotes from ministers attacking the prime minister. They were anonymous, but not the background briefings which are common newspaper currency. These were daggers between quotation marks aimed at denigrating one of the most successful finance and economic ministers in postwar European history and, moreover, a man who as prime minister has made real efforts to get world leaders to face up to the nature of the current economic-ecological world crisis.

Instead of attacking the Tories, ministers and MPs attacked Labour. And then, when David Miliband stuck his head above the parapet with an earthy article in the Guardian roundly abusing Cameron and the vacuity of his ‘Millionaires’ Row’ front bench, the response from another group of Labour insiders was to heap abuse on the foreign secretary. Again, the quotes were anonymous but were pure poison between quotation marks, continuing for day after day as those from within Labour’s own ranks continued to keep alive the Warwick weekend nightmare by ranting about Miliband just as others had ranted about Brown.

In war it is said that the most important officer in an army is General Morale. In politics, it is General Will. That is the will to win and then stay in power – despite disastrous external circumstances, and the fatigue that all democracies have about a party after a decade in office – by doing the right things for the nation by the values the party exists to promote.

My test is simple. I can see nothing in any Tory idea that would benefit the people of South Yorkshire and Rotherham in particular. It is not that Cameron is nasty. He, his shadow chancellor and other top Tories are so wealthy that a certain ‘richesse oblige’ obtains. But Rotherham is not on the Tory sat-nav: never has been, and never will be. Labour now has to be the one-nation party. This means, despite teeth-grinding by many activists, having policies to promote business and wealth creation and reward aspiration and ambition, as well as support for trade unions and help for the poor.

The Conservatives have indicated they will move straight to attack employment rights, Sure Start, regional and municipal support and other measures which have introduced some fairness since 1997. But how do we explain to the public that the Conservatives are the problem when so much time is spent saying the current Labour government and leadership – Brown one day, Miliband the next – is no good?

Compass puts out a press release a week attacking Labour. Some Labour MPs, and most who write for the Guardian comment pages, never forgave Blair and Brown for winning one, let alone two and then three elections, and are doing their all to ensure it is fourth time unlucky. Instead, we need confidence and a will to win again, more than policy wonkery to the power of 10.

One man who understands this is the retired Tory politician Norman Fowler. Fowler is not remembered for any government achievements. He is proof that ministers walk along the shoreline of history thinking they are leaving footprints just as the tide washes away the impression they made. But Fowler provides the blueprint for defeating the Tories. His new book, A Political Suicide: The Conservatives’ Voyage into the Wilderness, must be read by all Labour ministers and MPs. He explains in precise detail how the Tories lost power with a brutal frankness lightyears away from the self-serving vanities of most memoirs and diaries, including the damaging ones attacking Brown published by ex-ministers still in the Commons.

A few years ago, Fowler wrote one of those instantly forgettable ministerial memoirs but now he lifts the lid on the hatreds and internal feuds that destroyed the Major government. And everything he writes applies to Labour today. ‘The real truth about the Conservative party at Westminster in the 1990s is that it did not have the will to fight to retain power’, the result of the manner in which ‘senior Conservative politicians’ turned away from John Major ‘once he was in power,’ writes Fowler.

‘A party which appears disunited, quarrelsome and frankly unpleasant will never win an election.’ Can Compass, trade union leaders, and the anonymous briefers please take note? Another key bit of advice is: ‘Do not slavishly woo the media’ as invitations for private dinners at Chequers or No 10 never produce lasting benefits. Fowler also warns: ‘Never exploit the personal.’ For each Labour MP who has complained about a Tory MP to some oversight committee, there is a Tory MP who can do the same in return. Individual MPs may feel holier than thou but the mud we throw gets flung back and sticks.

And a more surprising Fowler guideline is to bring in increased state funding for politics. We give nearly £30m a year to the Electoral Commission, possibly the most non-productive quango set up in Whitehall history. That money given pro rata to parties with a cap on general election spending would, at a stroke, remove the issue of external funding and hence influence. It is amazing that after 11 years in power Labour has still not bit on the bullet of state funding as has every other European democracy.

This is the first time in years of writing about politics and political books that I have ever urged a Tory tome on fellow Labour MPs and activists. But Fowler lays out in detail all the mistakes the Tories made and we are making them one by one. Labour does not have to be like the Bourbons who forgot nothing and learnt nothing. Fowler has given us a blueprint for survival and told us how we can stay in power. The question is: will anyone read him and apply his lessons?

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Denis MacShane MP

is a former Europe minister. His biography of François Mitterrand was published in 1982, and in 1985 he wrote a Fabian pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour


  • Yep. The big reason the country doesn’t like us is because of things said by Compass, and Trade Unions.
    It’s obvious.
    Doesn’t everyone read the guardian?

  • Denis MacShane gives some sound advice for Labour to heed the warnings about the consequences of disunity and quarrelling (and others mistakes) offered by Norman Fowler in his book about the Tory party, A Political Suicide. The Conservatives Voyage into the Wilderness (Progress September).
    However, he is mistaken in saying that Fowler is “not remembered for any government achievements. He is proof that ministers walk along the shoreline of history thinking that they are leaving footprints just as the tide washes away the impression they made”.
    In 1984, as Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, Norman Fowler made a speech saying that local authorities had to become “enablers” rather than providers of social care services.
    Although he promised a Green Paper which never appeared, spurned on by the escalating costs to the social security budget of funding private residential care (£6 million in 1978 to £460 million in 1988 and £1.3 billion in 1991), he appointed Sir Roy Griffiths to survey the system. The report, Community Care: Agenda for Action, and the resulting NHS and Community Care Act 1990 had a much greater effect than just reining in those costs. It fulfilled the ambitions of Fowler’s 1984 speech. Today, most social care is no longer provided by local authorities. They commission services – from those for the very young to those for the very old – from 25,000 employing agencies, mainly private and voluntary. Contrary to what Denis MacShane says, Norman Fowler’s footprint on the shoreline of social policy is easily discernible.

    Terry Philpot
    Limpsfield Chart, Surrey

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