Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 June 2010
So, as the Clash put it so memorably in one of the stand-out tracks of their London Calling album in 1979: “What are we gonna do now?”
Well, to judge by the rhetoric of the contenders in Labour’s so-far somnambulant leadership election campaign, not a lot different from what we did between 1994 and 2010, but without Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.
Not one of the credible contenders to become leader of the opposition – Miliband, Miliband, Balls, Burnham – has deviated more than 0.5 degrees from New Labour magnetic north. One of them is not quite sure about Iraq, another thinks the former government made a bit of a hash of getting across its immigration policy, another believes a slightly more Eurosceptic line would have made sense, another hints that clamping down more vigorously on anti-social behaviour might have made a difference. All of them are keen on warm words about reconnecting with Labour’s grass roots.
In some ways, this is hardly surprising. I have written before about how party leadership elections are rarely the occasion for fundamental debate about the overall political direction a party should take, and it looks as if Labour’s 2010 contest will not be an exception to the rule.
It is too soon after the general election defeat for a serious rethink of Labour’s fundamental strategy, and all the young-ish men who made it on to the ballot paper were cabinet ministers in the last government and implicated in its controversial decisions. On the biggest issue of the day, the Con-Dem coalition government’s policy of slashing public spending even as we search for the green shoots of recovery, there is a real prospect of Labour making hay – and the coalition looks (in some lights at least) a fragile jerry-built construction that might be easy to demolish. In opposition, in any case, what a party leader can do in the short term is rather limited: change the party constitution a bit, come up with vague policy initiatives that suggest modernity and change.
So everyone plays it safe, which is fair enough – except that Labour needs a Plan B if the coalition does not implode. Everyone knows that “reconnecting with Labour’s roots in the unions”, “selecting more women and ethnic-minority candidates” and “making sure that party members’ voices are heard in its upper echelons” are Good Things, particularly if you are standing for Labour Party office. Labour has to re-engage its members and recruit a lot more of them. But changing the internal organisation and culture of the Labour Party will not solve its problems, which are more fundamental.
In large swathes of England, lower middle-class and skilled working-class voters have abandoned Labour in droves. Their reasons for doing so are many and varied – and so far yet to be researched in detail – but on the basis of anecdotal evidence they do not suggest that there is an easy way for Labour to win these voters back. They stopped voting Labour because they were worried about their house prices going down, worried about their jobs disappearing abroad or being taken by immigrants, worried about their pensions. They didn’t like Gordon Brown, they didn’t like MPs who made small fortunes on property speculation at the public’s expense. They had ceased thinking Labour was fair or economically competent or interested in them. They had had enough of spin and endlessly repeated soundbites.
However attractive most readers of Tribune might find the supposed policy panaceas of the traditional Labour left – ditch Trident, leave Afghanistan, build more social housing, extend trade union rights – none of them apart from housing addresses the core concerns of those who didn’t “come home” to Labour on 6 May. And the prescriptions of the Labour right – tougher on crime and immigration and, er, that’s it – are the policies on which Labour lost the election. Meanwhile, constitutional reform and environmentalism have been appropriated by the coalition. I never thought I’d write this, but to get an elected Lords, Labour in opposition will have to support a Tory-dominated government. The same goes for green energy policies.
Maybe I am being overly pessimistic, but my hunch is that Labour faces a bigger challenge in reinventing itself now than it did after it lost power in 1979. At very least it needs a leader who – as well as exploiting the weaknesses of the coalition day-to-day – is prepared once elected to think through the options for British and European social democracy as thoroughly as any Labour leader has ever done. I believe the best choice for this task (by a small margin) is David Miliband. He is bright, sophisticated, personable, experienced and telegenic. But the clincher for me is that he used to play cricket for Tribune.