Labour’s six-year slide damages not just the party but the country
My first day working at Progress, Monday 4 January 2010, saw us catapulted into the general election campaign. Wasting no time in the early new year, David Cameron displayed his will to win by releasing the first part of the Conservative manifesto, which was on the NHS – something Labour thought it owned. Over the next few months at Progress, we catalogued ‘Labour’s 100 achievements in 100 days’ (prog.rs/100in100). Out on the doorsteps we went, talking – though it is long forgotten now – about Labour’s strong action to save the economy, particularly Gordon Brown’s handling of the crash, though this was undermined by his unwillingness to publicly back his own government’s ‘Darling plan’.
In the years before I started here I had grown concerned that the comfortable inevitability of a Labour government was fast fading. I got more involved in my local Labour party as a result. Labour losing was not an academic question – so many of us had benefitted from a liberal, redistributive government. If ‘On your side’ was a slogan in those days, it had the full potency of government coiled right behind it. In 2010, from top to bottom, the party worked like never before in pursuit of an unlikely victory, eventually securing a 1992-style share of seats on a 1983-style share of the vote.
Despite falling short, Labour in Westminster worked hard to remain in power, despite the exhaustion accumulated over 13 testing years. The accounts of Andrew Adonis and assorted Liberal Democrats show how some of Labour’s leading politicians worked to retain a Labour government and all that that might mean for people. Their will to pen the Tories in on the opposition benches was still strong. Despite everything – the long years running the country, personal tragedy, intrusions about his health – Brown genuinely tried to return Labour to power. The long journey from 1980s opposition to 21st century rule had established a ‘new normal’ of Labour wishing to govern, not protest.
Perhaps the fatigue left too deep an imprint on Labour’s body politic (When Labour fell, who among us did not breathe a tiny, private sigh of relief that we would not now be constantly on the defensive the entire time, held to account by friends and family for every government misstep?) The post-2010 party leadership did not truly exhibit a will to win, even when faced with a Tory-led government that could, at times, be pushed about pretty easily. Following the fall from power, there is no doubt that something new was needed. Many of us looked forward to creating that something while remaining friendly critics of our own time in power. But it cannot be said often enough that attacking your own record does not stand you in good stead for convincing people that you will be good in future.
This self-flagellation dovetailed neatly with the strategy cultivated by the Conservatives. In June 2010, I sent out a Progress email rather plaintively headlined, ‘Anyone remember the banking crisis?’ It had already become established fact that the crash was due to Labour spending rather than a financial meltdown. Deliberately left uncontested for years by the opposition, the taint spread right across Labour’s former reputation for competence. In 2015, party members and candidates worked harder than ever, but were sent out without air cover. Now, in 2016, Labour is trusted less than ever – even on the NHS it leads the Tories by a mere six points.
Re-read that last sentence and pause for a moment. Where, now, is Labour’s will to power? The drive to stop the rot exists – palpably so – in a handful of our leading figures, particularly Sadiq Khan. Among mayoral candidates, he has exhibited a real thirst for power, not just office, and is now demonstrating proficiency at the values side of politics as much as the machine part of it.
A new, new normal has decisively gripped Labour: ‘holding the Tories to account’ appears now to be the furthest ahead that our leaders wish to project themselves. Laughably, we were asked to hail the sacking of George Osborne as somehow down to John McDonnell. Government U-turns, such as on tax credits, were at least as much to do with Conservative rebels like Heidi Allen causing immense embarrassment to their government. Too few in Labour really, genuinely, wish it were Conservative opposition members of parliament doing the ‘holding to account’, with Labour ministers guiding the ship of state. And this, even in the wake of a catastrophic Brexit which never would have happened had Labour not lost its will to win.
But it gets worse. Who, these days, is really surprised at the misogyny and antisemitism that are now washing through the party? Shocked – yes, still. Surprised? No longer. But our lack of surprise should shock us. Not least as these tides of prejudice carry beneath them a violent undertow. In all these years I would never have expected the party to have succumbed to such tendencies. For too many people it is no longer a safe space. This is the logical extension of a new, new normal that we must not accept.
From here, can we get back to the old ‘normal’ of wanting to win power? We should, not least because, if we do, you get to influence what becomes ‘normal’ in the country at large. In a wartime coalition, and then peacetime majority government, Clement Attlee’s Labour party remade the country so much that the Tories in the 1950s accepted its changes. Brown and Tony Blair’s Labour did something similar – remember, Cameron and Osborne’s attacks on Labour’s statecraft were more that we overspent while practising it, less that it was wrong in the first place. On the steps of Downing Street in 2010, Cameron was able to say, ‘Compared with a decade ago, this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for and on behalf of the whole country I’d like to pay tribute to the outgoing prime minister’.
Today, openness and compassion are diminishing stocks. Without a united, unifying Labour party hunting power right across Britain, the United Kingdom buckles; the European Union may yet do so too. Without Labour – unionist and anti-nationalist, pro-European and internationalist – crowding round the gates of Downing Street, the Tories have no reason to pay us heed. Britain’s slow slide from a politics of compassion, redistribution and liberalism to variations on the theme of Ukip is partly Labour’s responsibility. It is thus in the gift of Labour to rectify. After nearly seven years at Progress, I might have hoped that I had a more full answer to this conundrum. I don’t. But I do know that it is about attitude, it is about mentality, and it is about will to win power. If enough people have such resolve, then things will get better.
Adam Harrison is deputy editor of Progress. He leaves Progress this month
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