Labour wins when it is the future

2011 must be the year Labour realises the scale of its electoral, political, and philosophical defeat and finally articulates a different future.

This year has been a year of displacement activity for Labour. 2011 must be the year that it realises the scale of its electoral, political, and philosophical defeat and finally articulates a different future. Let’s recap briefly. The year started off with a botched attempt to make amends for failing to hold a leadership election the previous Summer. It was too late and so failed.

Within a few short breaths the election campaign was underway. It never got off the starting blocks. That Labour staffers were celebrating a paltry 29 per cent – the party’s second worst showing in living memory – on the morning of Friday May 7th shows how utterly hopeless the cause had become.

Labour was then- mistakenly- thrust into a leadership election before it had any time for reflection. This was the third displacement activity. Ed Miliband had a bit more verve and freshness than his rivals and deservedly won. The contest itself had no context. There was no analysis of Labour’s predicament or the challenges that it faced. Those things were left unsaid.

No sooner had the leadership contest finished but the final displacement activity set in. The Spending Review and the cuts- most particularly those that affecting higher education and students – became the final diversion of 2010.

And so the campaign goes on. Is this what people mean by perpetual campaigning? Rather like a grieving widow, the Labour party is keeping itself occupied. Surely at some point it will have to face its loss?

Meanwhile, the coalition (Tory-led!) has defined Labour’s recent past for it. In this framing Labour was profligate, economically incompetent, and authoritarian. Just saying ‘no we weren’t’ mixed with frenetic and exhausting activity won’t be enough. And if Labour thinks a Republican opposition strategy of ignoring the past while digging your heels in will work then it will have another thing coming.

There is no UK equivalent of the Senate super-majority and the left has no Glenn Beck etc backed by a multi-million dollar message machine. In fact, the reverse is the case.

Labour is not going to stop the coalition in the short term. They may grab the odd straggling gazelle- Vince Cable looks fair game- and provoke the odd u-turn and that will feel good. Civil society might slow it- and the likes of False Economy are more than capable of mobilising dissent. The politics of reform may weigh too heavily as all sorts of unintended consequences take hold- keep a close eye on the NHS.

The harsh truth, however, is that no matter how uncomfortable they are with many of the coalition’s policies, as things stand people want David Cameron as their Prime Minister. If there were an election tomorrow, he would become leader of a majority Government. The fact that the Liberal Democrats would be wiped off the electoral map is scant consolation.

Labour needs a policy review for sure and it has one. What it doesn’t have is a vision in which the review can sit. What this means is that there is a risk that the party will end up with spring freshly washed clothes without a washing line to hang them on. They will remain damp and become musty in time.

The greatest dramas turn on events that shift everything from one state to another. Politics is a dramatic pursuit where the weakest players pretend it is a rational enterprise. Cameron is prime minister because he a sense of the dramatic and the bold. His play changing event happened on May 7th; Labour became mere extras at that precise moment. Leadership sprang from apparent defeat.

Ed Miliband must, in time, respond with a similar sense of drama. He has so far sought to reconnect the Labour party to the lost leadership of John Smith. It was a noble and moral leadership and would have almost certainly still have returned Labour to power in 1997.

However, it was Tony Blair who was the first leader since Harold Wilson (Mark I) to make Labour a party of the future once more. Three Labour leaders have won majorities in the party’s history. Each of these majorities was secured on the basis of Labour cast as the party of a bright and optimistic future (not the party of being nice and fair!)

So this is less a prediction than a plea but 2011 must be the year when Labour ceases the restless displacement activity. It should have stopped in 2010. It didn’t. It should have stopped in 2009. It didn’t. Quickly though, it must then spring forward with a different vision: of an economy that provides good jobs in new creative services and industry; that re-defines public value and values for the post-austerity age; and makes real the promise of the Big Society as a new citizenship that tangibly improves communities and lives.

Do not under-value the decency of John Smith. Equally, do not forget that Labour wins when it is the future. 2011 must become the year when Labour is finally honest about its recent past and then with a sense of drama and panache, it imagines and articulates the different future that it can create and turns it into a poetic conviction. The alternative is a third year of frenetic displacement activity. Surely now is the time to move on?

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