Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word … Bring out your dead

Labour cannot afford to waste this defeat

Despite a Conservative media attempting to frame the Labour leadership contest as a stale and uninspiring process – the race is hotting up as the candidates put forward their arguments and priorities for the party and the country.

Colleagues turned competitors always meant that the race would endure a slow start, but the emerging debate is a compelling one.

Looking back to the dark ages of 2010-11 when the party decided not to learn any lessons of that defeat and instead chose to turn inwards – becoming intellectually inert in the process – we wasted an opportunity to bring out our dead. We chose not to undertake the heavy lifting necessary to rebuild public trust and re-energise a tired movement. We embraced foggy thinking and unconvincing platitudes. As a party and a movement, we got what we deserved. We wasted our defeat – hat-tip Ben Miller. Had we not done so, the reality is that we would either now be in government or genuinely within striking distance of victory at the next general election.

Yersinia pestis

Alas, it is now incumbent upon Labour members of parliament to don beaked masks and waxed overcoats in order to roam through the sodden, plague ridden streets of this avoidable defeat, dragging our wooden carts behind us, calling for the dead to be brought out. Failure to do so will mean that the contagion of defeat will not be contained.

Profane in the membrane

Last week’s bon mots inspired a flurry of interest. Many journalists, like distracted pupils determined to obscenely deface their text books only to find that someone else had beaten them to it, seemed to appreciate the sentiment. However, Alistair Campbell had already made a similar argument – namely that Labour should also learn the lessons of victory.


Meanwhile, as the carts of our plague doctors become heavier, the cloying scent of camphor gives way to the stench of putrefaction. How did the Labour party ever allow itself to be defined against the most successful period of its existence and against the most successful leadership team it has ever had? This episode of ‘revolutionary suicide’ demands a thorough inspection – and it will receive one from me and others – but as the parliamentary Labour party and the party membership pours the last drops of Kool-Aid down the drain, Ipsos MORI has helpfully popped up to help us learn the lessons of victory and dispense with quackery for good.

In polling published this week, when members of the general public were asked which past Labour leader, if any, the next Labour leader should most resemble to make them more likely vote for the Labour Party, Tony Blair came out as the clear favourite.

Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos MORI, said:

Tony Blair still outshines other past Labour leaders – even among supporters of other parties, and especially among the middle classes – but less among older people and working classes.

The public wants the big-tent approach of Blairism, with someone with the approachability and appeal of Tony Blair but from a working-class background? You don’t say…


Jamie Reed MP is member of parliament for Copeland. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @jreedmp

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Jamie Reed MP

is member of parliament for Copeland. He is shadow minister for health and writes The Last Word column on Progress


  • It’s not very informative to your readers to draw such a strong conclusion from that single question when far richer and more useful polling information is available: .

    The psephologist who wrote the linked blog identifies two important goals for Labour. First it should try to appear more competent compared to the Conservatives. Apparently the perception of relative incompetence made older and richer voters less likely to vote Labour. Second, it should try to emphasise ways in which its vision for how the country should be run is different from that of the Conservatives. The lack of sense of an alternative is apparently a key concern of people who are unhappy with the present political arrangement but voted for UKIP, greens or SNP rather than Labour.

    So the key is to emphasise that Labour politicians are more competent government-runners than Conservative ones and that Labour stands for something fundamentally different from what the Conservative party stands for.

    Tony Blair did succeed at appearing competent and making the Conservatives look incompetent, so I guess there are lessons to be learned from his leadership. However, ‘the big tent approach of Blairism’, which tends to obscure differences between Labour and the Conservatives, is exactly the opposite of what is needed to win over disaffected people.

  • The Ipsos/Mori poll is pretty unconvincing, as only wrinklies like me lived or remember life under previous Labour leaders to Tony Blair, so how would most respondents judge? There were tremendous social advances under Wilson, one of our most astute politicians ever. But both he and Blair lost huge amounts of support backing what many of us saw as unjust American wars. As a Labour supporter grown from a Labour family, I found myself on marches against Labour government policy in two generations. Both times it really hurt. Labour lost huge numbers of grey and greying voters mainly to the Lib Dems over Iraq, and they mostly didn’t come back. Some went to the Greens on May 7 when they moved on from the Lib Dems’ own episode of perceived betrayal.

    I keep seeing this word “Blairism”. It’s toxic with so many. Tony Blair was an effective pragmatist with a good team around him who got the message right for two elections, and survived against weak opposition in the third when the economy was flying nicely, though into a wall that few saw. His most effective policies were those that helped the low paid through the minimum wage, and repaired the structural neglect of years of Tory antipathy in Health and Education. Labour mended most roofs while the sun shone, (though overly adopting the Tory PFI model was shortsighted and costly). But rescuing and improving essential public services is not an -ism, that’s a given for a social democratic party.

    I agree with you that success in 2015 needs a “big tent” approach. But the notion of “Blairism” resonates very badly with large numbers of people, not least in Scotland, and the poll might indicate, with grey and C2 voters too. In other words our main target demographics. Liz Kendall has rightly rejected the label, and Yvette and Andy would no more want to be identified as slavish acolytes of Gordon Brown or as Millifans. Jeremy Corbyn is unashamedly from the left of the party, but is a free thinking person with his own mind who will enrich the debate. The most interesting part of the TV hustings for me was the proximity of approach on benefits from Liz and Jeremy, articulated in different ways, both wanting to see the reduction of in-work benefits by reducing the need for them, through developing a high wage, high productivity economy with a skilled workforce that will deserve to earn every penny. Leaving as few as possible behind and in need, and supporting according to that need. That’s not a right-left dichotomy, but maybe the start of a flagship vision.

    It’s Glastonbury soon. Everybody wants to be with the big tent crowd at key headline moments, but it’s often the little tents have the most exciting and innovative music. If the Labour movement fractionalises in this leadership campaign by identification squabbles and demarcation disputes, it will fail in its role as an opposition, let alone as a government in waiting. That’s exactly what happened to the post-Maastricht Tories, who were a comically useless opposition for years. Describing, more than that, identifying candidates as Blairist, Brownist, Leftist, or whatever, does them and their differing but not totally different messages great disservice. We need to ignore past allegiances and start to read and listen carefully to each candidate’s pitch, and discuss resonances in the wider, hopefully widening, Labour movement. Some ideas will be challenging, but may well be of their time in Summer 2015 and beyond rather than Spring.

    The campaign teams in particular need to avoid sowing discord. No point in having a big tent if you won’t let any of your friends into it. Policy and vision, not personality, must be the focus – members can make up their own minds about personality and electability. Wilson and Blair scored very highly on those counts, and it is important, but the great Clem Attlee won in a pre-TV age with policy. We need both policy and electability. We must win.

    Every one of the four leadership candidates has a place in the big tent, but may also wish to present their own themes from other parts of our political festival, preferably without derision. Despite their rival ambitions to be leader, they will all need to work together in important roles in the Shadow Cabinet, and we’ll need them to arrange their voices in some kind of harmony.

    As for Glastonbury, it’s a shame the Foo Fighters have had to pull out due to Dave Grohl’s broken leg, as in parallel did the estimable and generous Rushanara Ali from a really interesting DL contest.

    Here endeth the metaphor; hope it’s not ominous, but Michael Eavis has just been on the News saying there is a medium term existential threat to Glasto, as they haven’t got enough room for all the tents.

  • As someone who must now identify himself as a wrinkly along with JJDeede below (thanks, JJDeede!) what I want to see is an end to the Blairite approach that is perceived that is perceived by some (many?) as quasi-Tory politics whereby the Labour Party attempt to woo voters with “we’re different’ but not really enough to worry you” promises to keep to spending plans and cuts forced on them by the Tories should they (ever again) gain power.

    There is no realistic Left Wing party available to voters in England, and the SNP have stolen that mantle in Scotland (and Plaid Cymru in Wales) for many voters. Kinnock, Blair and their ilk saw to the demise of anything remotely Socialist, and Blair and the adjectives associated with him are a damning indictment of recent failures by the Labour Party. The sooner the Party ditches anything remotely connected with him the better. I would dare to suggest that many like me see little difference in what actually happens in practice between any of the main parties, although the rhetoric may change. The Labour Party introduced some important reforms in introducing the minimum wage ands repairing some of the damage done previously by the Tories in their last terms in office but seem incapable of any radical changes that made one think that we had innovative politicians who truly cared more for the country than their own jobs.

    I realise I have probably maligned individual MPs who have the passion and the commitment to their constituencies, but I doubt they are or were likely to achieve high office – they’d probably have frightened off the image consultants and spin doctors as unsafe and unlikely to stay ‘on message’. The Labour Party used to pride itself on being ‘a broad church’ until Militant battered down the doors, and then the leadership forcing everyone to close ranks was the result, with no one allowed to stand out from the increasingly grey crowd.

    Until there is radical change, which may indeed see some ‘wilderness years, there will only be an slow and painful death of the Labour Party. My once passionate belief in the Party and in its MPs has been worn away to be replaced by a cynical approach to all politicians; and Labour is doing nothing to rekindle that passion which would make me change my opinion.

    The Labour Party needs to be rebuilt from the grass roots up, not from the top down. This includes Trades Union members rather than career Trades Unionists and all Constituency party members, rather than a few vocal local party activists seeking selection as councillors etc. When we have a truly representative party of the Left, the Labour Party will be re-born. but sadly not until then.

    So the question remains… Is the Labour Party brave enough to change or will it be ‘more of the same’ which will surely be its inscription on the Party’s gravestone?

  • The main difference between the Labour Party and the Conservative government is the Conservative government’s willingness to accept that the grown-up, managerial age of government has replaced the comforting ideological one. Once Labour has grasped that, it will be operating on a level playing field and will have a chance in the match, if only as a coalition partner.

  • Nobody likes a winner.

    When the front runner for the current leadership looks to be perpetually on the brink of tears at everything, it is little surprise that the one leader Labour has had who has won an election or three in the last 40 years will be loathed by his own party.

    Why not just persuade Blair himself to return? He’s not particularly old. Even the defining act of his career which makes him a figure of hate on the left, the Iraq war, wasn’t enough to lose him the 2005 election. It’ll be ancient history by the time of 2020.

  • The Labour Party is looking for its Neil Kinnock to lose it the next two elections, but frankly, why settle for an ersatz Neil Kinnock when the real one is available?

    Kinnock for leader!

    He could hardly be worse than Butcher Burnham or Mrs Balls, the fellatrix of Ed.

  • You’re one of those completely potty loonies who can’t see the point of winning elections if you then have to behave responsibly. If you can’t wreck the economy, side with Muslim paedophiles against children, liquidate Brazilian electricians on the Tube, start illegal wars in Iraq, tax people you really hate, or do any of the lefty fun stuff, why bother?

    Why bother indeed.

    You’re like a dray horse breeder wondering how to increase your appeal to Porsche drivers. The world’s moved on without you.

    Labour should just disband.

  • If you can come up with reasoned arguments rather than an ill-informed rhetoric and insults I will listen to them.
    Until then, educate yourself about matters about which you obviously know very little.
    If you want to be treated like a troll, you will be.
    Discussion (with you) closed.

  • Labels are just pigeon holes for parking collections of ideas that don’t necessarily belong together. For example, you can’t sum up Blairism by saying that the big tent + 3rd-way + Iraq = disaster, therefore big tent approach doesn’t work.

    In a meeting last night someone said “We have to give people hope”. That’s so important. The big tent is all about that. But you are right to say we need to find ways forward that differentiate us from the Tories, so thank you for pointing me to that article. Here is another that’s really worth reading:

    Differentiation is key. We have to find ways forward that can be solved with our mind-set that the Tories can’t solve with theirs. Two ideas…

    1. The Tories are never going to want to restrict the bad capitalist that hang around their tent, because they have too much to lose. Conversely, we must hug business and make popular capitalism a respected phrase whilst rejecting those capitalist that are bad for us. See what Will Hutton thinks of them…

    2. The pope has made a critically important intervention in the environment debate. This is a point of differentiation between us and the Tories. They will take the platitudes of big business that the environment is safe with them. We are not so accepting and would be prepared to argue for the right to safe environment. We would argue ‘for the planet’ in a court case whilst they would argue ‘for the business’. We can give people hope.

    Our typical talk of left-vs-right is just nonsense, out of date, divisive, and will take us in the wrong direction. We have to judge each item on its merits and not reject ideas because of a label. Don’t let labels pin us down for the Tories to jump on.

  • Thanks for the interesting response and links! That’s a really good point about environmental issues. I also think that it would be a very good idea for Labour to identify and attack bad capitalists who the Tories can’t dissociate themselves from.

    The problem is that within its current paradigm Labour cannot credibly prioritise the environment or criticise bad capitalists. Credible environmental policies would require levels of investment and taxation which Labour isn’t prepared to contemplate. Bad capitalism includes banks, wages, privatisation, tax avoidance and housing, none of which Labour feels able to alter substantially. People won’t take Labour seriously, and didn’t at the last election, when it criticises ‘bad capitalism’ without committing to doing things that anger bankers, low wage employers, privatisation companies, tax avoiders and landlords.

    The fact that Labour feels it cannot make commitments that would plausibly be to its political advantage illustrates why talk of left and right is not out of date. The reason it feels constrained is that it thinks it would be seen as too left wing. Avoiding the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ doesn’t address this problem. I think the better option would be for Labour and to try and reclaim the term ‘left’, trying to convince people that just because an idea is left wing doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get behind it.

    Do you think that would be compatible with a ‘big tent’ approach?

  • Just thinking on the fly here, but whatever suggestions I make there will be tons more out there for us to mine.

    Some may be picked up by Tories but if, for example, we engaged the unions to implement some of this in the workplace then we could (a) have greater reach (b) give unions a champion’s role (c) offer something the Tories won’t want.

    Costly unfunded policies are not an option, so let’s re-assign the costs of the environment we live and work in:

    It costs to dispose of waste, so build that into product taxes.
    It costs environmental quality when polluters damage life, so build that in with tax differentials: on fuels; on products costing more energy miles per kg; buying local should be cheaper so don’t overtax with rates. Take into account secondary effects (dependent jobs) when outsourcing government work and services. Don’t have 10 ton containers up and down the motorway to recyle a few cardboard boxes. Teach people to squash their plastic milk-bottles to halve the lorries doing the recycling.
    Be more efficient, trusting people more with less specific objectives.
    Fine shops that have permanently open doors that waste fuel to heat the streets. We should trust people to identify and put forward ideas for reducing costs. People are on our side on this.

    Consider a new type of UK.Ltd company in which we have more generous tax breaks connected to (a) the number and quality of jobs in the UK (b) the amount and quality of the training they give (c) the amount of money they spend on UK sourced materials and services, etc.

    Those people at the top of the capitalist tree that earn a fortune for themselves, whilst creating no products and creating few jobs by just weaving a few capital flows around some new financial product. They are no use to us. Tax them more and be rid of them. On the other hand, if they generate jobs, or tax, and help build a better country then support them as much as we can.

    I feel that left/right labels have always been useless, misleading and not understood – at least by me. We should deal with things issue by issue and take ideas from all sides. I won’t be voting for J Corbyn but he has some wise things to say.

  • well, you’ve certainly read (or seen the film) 1984, but trying to be clever does not prove that you are. I refer to my last comment.

  • Why does Labour blame itself all the time? The Tories BOUGHT the election by pouring vast sums of money into it and by telling the most obvious lie of all time, in the same way that they won in 1979, by pretending that Labour had ruined the economy, when in fact it was Gordon Brown who SAVED the economy from its threatened collapse in 2008. But we had lost the election before it ever started with the “there’s no money left” which was someone’s idea of a joke but played right into the hands of our enemies.

  • Simon,

    Some policies make us look like Tories because they talk about them and we usually don’t, such as support for a mixed economy and financial prudence, but they are just common sense and common ground. Aren’t they?

    The Tories look a bit more like us than they used to, because they have moved towards our position on some social policies. We would want that wouldn’t we? Common ground again, so in some ways we are not very different.

    Other policies do differentiate us from the Tories: rewards the elites get with the Tories versus the support we give to those at the bottom. We believe in equality of opportunity. This is something we talk about and which they don’t. Maybe, one day, they will realize that we would all be better off if it were an aim for them too. If we then have more common ground should we complain? No.

    We have to find those policies we believe to be good for all in the country, which are economically sound, which their elites won’t like or which their dogma turns them off. Likewise, to be clever about it, we can’t let our dogma prevent us from agreeing with them. What is it about that word “left” that makes it right?

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