At a glance, Labour’s road to a majority in 2015 seems both long and steep. We stand today almost four years on from one of our worst defeats since the end of the second world war, having won 258 seats and just 29 per cent of the vote, barely beating the consummate disaster of the 1983 general election in which we managed 27.6 per cent. However, unlike in 1983, 2010 came at the rump-end of a government that had seemingly lost the will and ideas necessary to govern the country after the global financial crisis. In short, we rightly saved the banks and the British economy from a devastating depression, but did not know what to do afterwards.
We are now in opposition, along with so much of progressive politics in Europe (and those who are in power, such as François Hollande’s Socialist party, are realising that even in France traditional leftwing policies are leading to division and unpopularity). There are lessons we need to learn in order to reverse this trend – particularly from recent history and the ideals of the New Labour project that, far from being decried as ‘dead’ or replaced by an undefined new generation, are still truly relevant to our movement. Beyond any specific policy, this translates to a continued transformative process within our party.
I am not advocating a carbon-copy repeat of the 1997 campaign – to think that is the right path is to fundamentally misunderstand the modernising project of New Labour which smashed not only the Conservatives but beat the vested interests to the left of our own party. To win in 2015 we need to keep changing our party, not shirk from iconoclasm and reform as we tackle the problems ahead. For example, Ed Miliband is right to have changed the way that our party interacts with the trade unions which, despite being absolutely critical to our movement and engaging hundreds of thousands of people across the country in their working communities, have a leadership that is at odds with the wide diversity of opinion that unionised working people have. Movement from a union bloc in all but name in terms of voting for policies and our leadership towards one based upon the genuine support of Labour party members is a necessary one.
The world is changing and, in coming to terms with that, we need to develop new solutions and policies that represent true progress and modernisation, not just comfortably repackaged dogma from the rose-tinted past of our movement. The immense success of New Labour, if anything, was based upon its ability to critically assess our past and realise the changing aspirations and circumstances of a country that had viewed the Conservatives as a natural party of government. Tony Blair and his band of reformers changed that, a legacy we can see today in the sense that, despite our truly awful performance in 2010, a Labour majority in 2015 is still a very real possibility. In order to crystallise that potential we must remain firm in our resolve to continue changing our party and resisting those who would drag us back to a comfortably principled position as a natural party of opposition.
George Melhuish is chair of Edinburgh University Labour Club. He tweets @GTMelhuish
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