Following my asking what Labour needs to do to get its head together and get back in the game, this is the first of two posts to try to address that. It contains some groundwork about the constraints within which the problem has to be dealt with, and the features an answer needs to have.
I assume for argument’s sake that Gordon Brown will succeed Tony Blair; I think it’s extremely likely. Not that I don’t have my doubts about him, but then I also have doubts about every other possible contender, and – ever-increasingly – about Blair.
Twelve years ago, Blair, following Bill Clinton before him, realised that there were electoral dividends in persuading the voters to count up to three rather than just the usual left vs right: a “third way … neither old left nor new right”. David Cameron is now trying to pull off a similar manoeuvre. But Brown needs to get people to count all the way up to four. As well as being different from the Tories, he needs to persuade disillusioned Labour voters that he is an improvement on Blair but without falling into the fatal trap of being seen as ‘old Labour’.
To the extent that Labour’s fall in support since about 2002 is due to dislike of Blair personally, then Brown (or for that matter anyone else) can tick that box. More obviously, Brown is seen as less of a spinner than Blair, and this may be a card he can play against Cameron. But in more general terms, the shape that post-Blair Labour takes has to be recognisably distinct from that of the last few years – although not too different, at least in terms of substance (see below).
Plenty of columnists, MPs, think-tankers, unionists, academics and the like have been offering their thoughts on Labour’s predicament. If you’ve read some of them, you may well have noticed the overwhelming tendency for people to treat the question ‘What should Labour do to regain the initiative and win the next election?’ as if it were the same as ‘What is your personal wish list of policies?’
That won’t do. I understand that people in politics like to feel that they’re in touch with the public mood, and of course nobody wants be seen saying ‘I think X is a rotten idea but it’ll win us votes so let’s do it.’ But really, people. Take a few breaths and think about perspective, about compromise. I know that there’s stuff in my own Fantasy Queen’s Speech that would be unacceptable to a lot of the party and/or the public; that’s my tough luck.
The strategy has to be politically viable. That means it must have the following properties:
(1) Enough continuity for most of the leadership to be able to accept it.
I know plenty of us have serious complaints about the direction the government has taken. But to perform a series of massive U-turns would be to invite ridicule; even if Brown somehow doesn’t become leader, we can be sure that most of the people in the new cabinet will be drawn from the existing ranks of ministers. For them to have to go back on a major bunch of their own policies would be to invite deserved ridicule and electoral punishment. There is also the small matter of the 2005 manifesto promises.
Renewal is not the same as repudiation. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be lots of ways of signalling a reorientation: for example, gradual troop withdrawals from Iraq, instituting Parliamentary pre-war votes as a default, having fewer meetings with Bush, and loudly praising the virtues of diplomacy and the UN – rather than bluntly renouncing the war. Or perhaps a Home Office review will conveniently conclude, six months post-Blair, that ID cards are technologically impractical and/or prohibitively expensive.
Inconsistency would be punished. The case for voting Labour at the next election must cohere with, and improve upon, the case for why Labour deserved to win the last three: building upon past successes, identifying new challenges and, yes, learning from mistakes. There’s plenty of scope for changing the priorities without contradicting the record.
(2) Enough ‘Labourism’ for most of the party to be able to accept it.
This means that Brown needs to offer some significant olive branches to that section of the party that feels disconnected from much of the leadership’s recent agenda. It certainly doesn’t mean adopting a bunch of stock leftist ideas like scrapping grammar schools, but it does absolutely rule out ‘über-Blairite’ ideas like scrapping inheritance tax.
(3) A broad enough appeal for sufficient numbers of the public – working-class and middle-class – to be able to accept it.
Both parts of the 1997/2001 coalition need to be reassured and re-courted. The single parent on the inner-city estate working part-time on the minimum wage, and the solvent yet insecure professional couple with a house in the London suburbs, both need to have their concerns addressed. A political agenda tailored to one but ignoring the other will fail.
So those are the broad political requirements that the new agenda must fulfil. Areas of importance are: party unity; spin, honesty and propriety; competence; targeting Cameron’s weak spots; and of course policy. You might wryly note that this list covers pretty much every aspect of politics; well, nobody said that deserving to stay in government was easy.
More specific thoughts in a day or two. [Update: see here and here.]