For the sake of the future of the Labour party it is time that younger generations spoke clearly on the future of the party. Five years out of office was tough, another five is going to be even harder. Ten would be a complete disaster.
I was prompted to put pen to paper on this piece after seeing, and being dismayed, by the nature of the debate that has taken place since 7 May as to what we got wrong.
Having worked previously for David Miliband in 2010 and for the five years since then for Jack Straw, I have seen firsthand what has gone wrong. I do not want the party to compound the dreadful election result by continuing to learn all the wrong lessons from defeat.
Tip number one from Tony Blair on ‘what to do and what to avoid in winning the struggle to be elected’ is: ‘start with an honest analysis of why you are in opposition, not in government’.
First, we need to be really careful not to overthink the general election result. By its very decisiveness there is a profound clarity to what the British public told us. Put simply, every general election since the second world war has been won by the party that has taken the centre-ground and offered the most compelling vision to the British people. We did not do so in either 2010 or 2015.
We did not lose because we were not left wing enough.
It is an obvious truth that when the Labour party loses general elections it does so to a party of the right, not of further to the left. This is so simple but too few people in our party seem to truly grasp this.
When Labour won most handsomely, in 1997, and then again in 2001 and 2005, we had built a coalition of supporters, across classes and across the country.
Since 2007 the party has taken almost every possible step to turn away from what made us unprecedentedly successful under New Labour.
As I have said, every election since 1945 has been won by the party that most clearly dominated the centre-ground. However many times the Labour party tries to re-arrange this formula, however much we think it is the public and not us who must change the outcome will be the same – we will lose.
Come May 2015, for these reasons, Labour was seen to be untrustworthy on the economy, not on the side of those who wanted to play by the rules, against business and excruciatingly uncomfortable about the majority of our time in government.
Against this backdrop the party appears now to be misreading the clear signals from the 2015 election result – ensuring we stay out of power for a generation.
So, where do we go from here?
Step one. Now is the time to finally, and fully, embrace the legacy of New Labour; for until we do so we will not win another decisive 1997-style victory – nor even scrape in as we did in 1974. We will not deserve to be elected into office again by the British people, nor will we be, until we have fully come to terms with, and accepted, what was the most successful period our party has known. The New Labour project is not something relevant solely to the late 1990s. Rather, it is a constant attempt to adapt Labour values to a fast-changing and dynamic world.
The Labour party, to me, means something very clear. If we are to be elected again it must mean something equally clear and relevant to people across the country. Surely our aim must be to offer each person in the country a compelling reason to vote for us?
I hope the current leadership contest, by virtue of its long-winded nature, allows time for some hard truths to sink in. Whoever becomes our next leader must grasp some simple lessons.
We do not simply need to win back Scotland.
Neither do we need to focus primarily on the UKIP threat in the north.
Nor, finally, do we need to go back to our core support – if the 2010 and 2015 elections have not established precisely what our ‘core’ support is, nothing will.
The party needs a policy platform that speaks to every person in every part of the United Kingdom and, crucially, it needs to be explained by a set of compelling shadow ministers and by a credible future prime minister.
What exactly should our new leader seek to do upon taking office later in the year?
First, let me try to totally reinforce the point I have set out above by illustrating the election results of 1997, 2010 and 2015:
Labour lost this election, and the last, not because of Scotland, not because of UKIP, not because we lost our core vote but because we totally lost the middle ground of hard working British people – particularly in the south and the Midlands. We abandoned the lessons of New Labour, moved away from the centre and died on the sidelines.
In specific policy terms there are some immediate changes we need to make.
First, on the economy it is time, once and for all, that we make clear we could have done better while we were in government. In our second term in office, post-2001, we could have controlled spending more tightly and borne down more heavily on waste. In 2007 Gordon Brown announced plans to increase public spending above inflation (a £90bn increase, or 2.1% above inflation). In future the Labour party needs to be the absolute by-word for fiscal prudence. We should care, genuinely and seriously, about every single pound and penny of taxpayers’ money. Never again should we, in government, run a deficit in respect of current spending in any other circumstance than with the authorisation of a cross-party vote.
In 1997, 2001 and 2005 we were the party of business. Entrepreneurs and CEOs supported Labour because we stood for a prosperous Britain that welcomed those who ran companies, earned money and helped employ workers. We must return to those values. Ed Miliband’s senseless and suicidal attack on business was only ever going to have one outcome.
There is more than a slight clue on what we should fundamentally stand for in our party name: Labour. For me, the Labour Party is absolutely the party of work. I want us to stand by, and make sure the country works for, those who go out to work, day in day out, do the right thing and make sure they play by the rules. As a party, these people – the builder or the business person – are our core.
The direction I would like to see our policy more generally evolve towards can be underpinned by one simple word: fairness.
A fair immigration system is one that does not set an arbitrary cap, dreamed up in a party political meeting. Rather it should be a system that is so clear, so transparent and so fair that there is no dispute about its efficacy. If you have lived in an area for a long time, for instance, you should have a higher priority for social housing than someone who has moved there more recently.
A fair benefit system is one which sees someone only get out what they put in. If, for instance, I could only afford, in work, to budget for having one child, someone out of work cannot have indefinite numbers of children paid for by the taxpayer. Thus, Labour must be seen first and foremost as the party of those who go out to work and strive to provide for their families.
In healthcare fairness means rewarding good behaviour, not writing a blank cheque. If a GP warns someone repeatedly about smoking, drinking or eating healthily, and they ignore these warnings and then fall ill with a relevant illness, that person should fall to the back of the queue for treatment.
On taxes, fairness means rewarding work and encouraging people to save. The Labour party must never again instinctively be seen to want, for its own sake, higher tax. In 2015 we wanted a 50p top rate of tax because it appeared politically in our interests. There is, and has never been, anything ‘socialist’ about higher taxation.
If we can unite our policies around a leitmotif such as fairness, in a way that addresses the concerns of people across the country, we have a chance of being relevant again to people’s lives.
For some on the left there is a comfort to being in opposition and debating our policy positions in strictly ideological, and therefore theoretical, terms. But let’s be honest, we achieve absolutely nothing in opposition.
Daniel Sleat is a member of Progress
Photo: Louisa Thomson
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