By 2010 after thirteen long years of power our party was not ready for a real conversation about its time in office. We could not talk about the concessions we made to be in power, nor what we did with it. Simply our party was in mourning of having finally lost the power it so desperately craved.
The real tragedy was that Labour almost resigned itself to defeat by mid-2008. Only a stirring performance from Peter Mandelson in the dying days of the 1997-2010 administration ever gave us hope we would win that unpresented and historic fourth term. By 2008 the wheels were coming off the wagon, but the downfall of New Labour was set in stone the day Gordon Brown took over the leadership a year previously.
As a self-defined Brownite at the time, it’s now time to accept that the future was obvious to predict. The renewal we so badly craved was never going to be delivered by a man who ascended to power without challenge. Both Blairites and Brownites must take their share of the blame. But now our party is on the edge of a precipice and just a few weeks from an even more desperate future. Just as we cannot allow history to repeat itself, we cannot replay the battles of the past. It is now time to bury new Labour for good and move on.
“We believed that the tough times were being in government. We were quite clearly wrong.”
New members like me, who joined with the accession of Gordon Brown to the leadership in 2007, honestly, and naively, believed that the tough times for our party were being in government. ‘Defending the indefensible’ – we were quite clearly wrong. But dealing with the Lib Dems in your local community who believed they had moral superiority – is it any wonder then that people found it easier to jump ship to the Liberals, or nowadays to the Greens or TUSC, believing that we could somehow be ‘purer’? And yet the tough times were quite clearly still ahead. Sitting back and having to watch the destruction brought onto our youth and social services as a visual and striking reminder of what the Tories are capable of in power. Nothing short of destroying the futures and chances of millions of people growing up or growing old in Britain today.
Fast forward to the aftermath of the 2010 general election and it is no surprise then that we derided the Liberal Democrats for ‘selling out’. After years of their left wing pandering and name calling we were absolutely entitled to look at their so-called purity and laugh as it faded. I don’t blame activists or even me for doing so, it was a gruelling campaign but to do so was a mistake none the less, and a fatal mistake at that. We now find ourselves in the midst of debate about power and what the chance of a Labour government means to real people, not just activists. Attempting to square a circle having spent 5 years telling Liberal Democrats to come back home, all whilst the concessions Clegg made did clearly have a visible effect on Tory plans. Their ‘apologism’ are now the principles we are asking our party to keep fighting for rather than resign ourselves to an undignified end.
“We have to work out at the same time why it was that our activists and supporters ditched our party for the purity of the left and for the sanity of the right.”
But the case we must also answer to is how a rudderless and visionless Labour Party attempting to cling to power let the Conservatives go into the 2010 general election as the more liberal choice for Britain. We have to work out at the same time why it was that our activists and supporters ditched our party for the purity of the left and for the sanity of the right. It is this debate that we entrusted with our leader – who deserted us in pursuit of a crusade of self-belief for the past five years.
I do however still stand by my belief that the younger Miliband’s analysis was largely correct in 2010. New Labour had become too centrist, had too often showed little regard or concern for civil liberties and since the economic crisis could not decide whether either it had been too conservative with the public finances or had not significantly changed the way the economy worked enough. It was also true that the accession of Gordon Brown had failed to finally put to bed the remaining disagreements of the Blair leadership which the party could not square with itself.
The Iraq War was the one prominent issue that should have been dealt with in 2005. If the country could bring itself to vote for Tony Blair, the party should put the squabbles to rest. And yet the rumblings continued and by 2007 had ensured the issue was toxic within the party – without necessarily being so in the country. Just like the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in the States, the 2010 leadership election was allowed to become a judgement on trust and authenticity and values solely by whether you ‘supported’ the war or not. This in itself was not solely Miliband’s fault. But coupled with the fact that those on the left continually sought to undermine the record and achievements of the new Labour government, it was with this fascination above all else with Iraq, from which our country had already moved on from, that would cripple us into a state of misjudgement.
It was on these issues, both right in terms of civil liberties and power and wrong on the sole focus on Iraq, where Ed Miliband mobilised trade unionists as well as party members, albeit in smaller numbers. Within the first year of his leadership, Miliband had all but forgot his message of renewal and rehabilitating new Labour and its mission and instead decided to lump us in with the left and ensured we ran away from new Labour as quickly as we could. At almost every turn, Miliband pitched himself against the 1997-2010 government, as opposed to the Conservatives. On these tests alone, his leadership was a disappointment to those who genuinely supported him as the reform candidate and I don’t understand why so many remained so loyal for so long.
“Those who attempted to say we were going the wrong way were shut down and told they were helping the Tories.”
Undermining the labour administration from the left from Miliband junior, and being fascinated by organising and what appeared to be a cult rather than strengthening the case for reform from the centre from Miliband senior, were the two greatest disasters of the 2010 leadership campaign. Over the last 5 years those issues have been allowed to either rumble on, without regard for the fact that the Tories would move into new space or u-turn on issues that played badly. Did we honestly believe that reversing a decision on the forests would ensure a Labour victory by 2015 or honestly answer the legitimate criticisms of new Labour’s failings in government? Often fears over our own electability, just in their cause but wrongly played out, also ensured we took the opposite line to the one we should have had. Where we should have been ready to lead our country, we resigned it to bad policy and in short; we kept the party together at the expense of the country and those who attempted to say we were going the wrong way were shut down and told they were helping the Tories. Sound familiar?
It is through this vacuum that left has been able to multiply and grow and allow themselves to create a false reality of a ‘conspiracy’ against Labour. Its own disappointment in the inability of Miliband’s leadership to cut through became an evitable crusade against business and the media. Ever the underdogs, always destined to lose, it is the Tories who would always win. It would be with the stroke of genius and left-wing triangulation that a triumphant Miliband would walk into Number 10. Kidding ourselves that a game of ‘nur-nur told you so’ will serve our country well. It is this complete disaster that now our party still can’t bring itself to come to terms with, because it was so painfully preventable.
The central question however remains unanswered; what is Labour’s view of ‘that’ government? Have we now apologised enough? The left are all over the place in attempting to answer this question. They believe that ‘elements’ of the new Labour government were good. You now hear Owen Jones and even Jeremy Corbyn seek to claim these and then lump in the ‘wrong’ under the auspices of Blairism. But it is now time for the left to realise that when your view of the Labour government is wholly negative and that we did ‘too much’ wrong, that there is ‘too much’ beyond the pale then you must reconcile yourself with the fact that there will never be a Labour government that you will be able to bring yourself to terms with. None in history, none in the future. We must be very clear; there is no progressive majority and it is wrong to believe the country would ever elect a government so pure that you could believe in it. There will be no revolution.
“To be an eternal opposition is the consequence”
To be an eternal opposition is the consequence and this is now what many are happy for us to choose. But there are also those on the left who honestly believe you can win from their side of the net. Even if we were to accept that the country would allow us to win there, you therefore must accept that the debate we require is one that is now nearly 8 years overdue.
“The belief that ‘true Labour’ is that of Brown who himself was wronged by Blairism. It is a false divide powered by paranoia.”
The roots of Labour’s current crisis lay in the processional accession of the leadership conducted by Gordon Brown and his team in 2007, and not in 2003 with the Iraq War as the left believe. The reason this has been wrongly attributed and the analysis over these failings has never happened has been down to the continued and handy suggestion of the ‘corruption’ of Labour by Blair. The belief that ‘true Labour’ is that of Brown who himself was wronged by Blairism. It is a false divide powered by paranoia. That paranoia has only grown in the past 5 years and the response to this paranoia is failure. A willingness to close down debate, crush decentres, brief against your ‘enemies, surround yourself by only those who are true believers and now the manifestation of that belief by calling Blairism itself a ‘virus’. Our paranoia should have been over the ability of the Conservative party to rebuild itself and re-position itself as a centrist party under a new leader. In fact, we let it happen.
And so it was the case that with the handover to Brown that the left believed they had rediscovered the keys to power – they didn’t. It was then with the election of Miliband that they declared they had their party back – they did not. And now it is Jeremy Corbyn. But how many more times do we need to see the same result by giving the wrong answer to the right question?
Labour’s perceived failings from 2003, the accession of Gordon Brown, the financial crisis from late 2007 and the defeats of both 2010 and 2015. At each of these stages Labour required renewal.
It was that very sense of renewal and ambition of purpose that many of us at the time believed would come from that handover to Brown. Of course, that was never going to happen when he was too afraid to be challenged by his own party, let alone his own country.
Many then believed that renewal would then come with the accession of David Miliband – and yet by 2010 and after a botched and failed attempt against Brown, he found himself too toxic and failed to be a genuine reform candidate who could break out of the Blair/Brown years.
Many therefore then believed it would come from Ed who had been both Blairite and Brownite to bring ‘unity’ to a party that needed healing. Ed sought neither renewal nor to heal the divisions of the past – sacking ‘Blairite’ shadow ministers for starters. Now we delude ourselves that Andy or Yvette can do the same five years later having been there the whole time.
We are out of time and out of turns and we must now accept that we are in a dead end with no way out. There will be no ‘renewal’ of the new Labour brand, or ethos, and no rehabilitation. Quite frankly we have let it be dragged through the mud for far too long and it’s time to cut our losses and run.
There is therefore only one course.
“To win again we must continue to distance ourselves from the last Labour government and those who served under it”
To win again we must continue to distance ourselves from the last Labour government and those who served under it. After a long 8 years of a journey to nowhere and the constant undermining of that government it is now toxic to our party – even whilst its achievements still relevant to our country – and we will not move forward if we try to bring those divisions together or once again carve up our party again because of them.
It is therefore essential that we look at the challenges the country, not our party, faces and seek to create something new, led by someone genuinely new.
Our politics is in crisis with traditional power splintering and nationalism on the rise. The country is crying out for authentic leaders who understand life and have real experiences of it and an understanding of others. They want to see a sense of purpose from someone who can articulate what they believe and where the country should go. They also require a real vision of opportunity and hope understanding that people want to have control over their own lives and want a smart government that empowers them rather than controls them.
We are kidding ourselves if we honestly believe Jeremy Corbyn is the answer the country requires to those frustrations.
“We can’t just follow anyone who just puts their hand up and leads us off a cliff and takes us back even further.”
Yet again, the Labour Party has the wrong people and the country will pay the price. It was the vacuum led by those who sought to undermine Tony Blair, and wrongly placed the blame solely at his door without realising their own paranoia, that would take us to this desperate place. These are the very same people who are likely to continue to hold power in our party. Worst still we are about to go even further into the abyss because of their failings and the weakness of their leadership. Whilst nobody else has really stepped up, it is clear our party and our country will not be best served by following anyone who just puts their hand up and leads us off a cliff. To win again we must firmly put new Labour to rest and move on. But worst still we could choose to go backwards even further.
New Labour became a soap opera, then it was killed by the perceived move to the left, the financial crisis, lack of talent, a failure to commit to renewal and that paranoia. Nobody came to its rescue and then we battered it over the head for the past 5 years despite the fact it was already dead. It is now over and now it’s time for something new, but to do that we must bury it for good.
In the next few weeks we are either going to choose to bury our party with it, try and resuscitate it in vain, keep battering it even though it is dead or triangulate our way around it.
For many in the centre who are now saying that we bury our party with it stand by the idea that one day we will be able to dig our way back out and leave the toxic remnants of new Labour and of old Labour behind.
I’m not so sure we’ll be able to.