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Labour’s new leader needs to make peace with the past

September 7th, 2010 Posted in UK Politics by

lab_leadershipI’ve been meaning for a week to post Denis MacShane’s comments on the Labour leadership election. It’s not often that one finds pearls of wisdom in the Evening Standard, but I thought MacShane made some vary adroit points:

“[T]he Labour leadership election is curiously flat. All four main candidates are in denial about the deficit and the failure of Labour to stop the colonisation of the state by a Whitehall/town hall/quango bureaucracy: it persuaded politicians to increase taxes and borrowing to pay for an explosion of salaries, pensions and perks without parallel in the history of the public realm…

Labour has been defending its past as if the unqualified verdict of the voters in May was just a blip. The pleasure in attacking Lib-Dems — every Labour MP’s favourite target — has obscured the need for radical new thinking. How big a state? How much and what kind of taxes? Does nudging work or do we need clear rules that can be enforced? Should unions have more power? Can Britain live easily with so many people not born here or not sharing traditional British values and faiths? Stay or withdraw from Afghanistan?

Each of these and many more questions that the economy, society and the wider world pose requires an answer. And, as ever, the answers desired by party activists and Labour MPs may not be the answers voters support…”

This is rare and welcome stuff. The Labour leadership election has been an exercise in denial. I am not qualified to comment whether this is limited merely to the leadership being too afraid to admit they got it wrong, or whether the failure runs through the whole party, and the would-be leaders are simply reflecting (as politicians seeking elected office usually do) the prejudices of the voters.

This is a very dangerous game for the Labour Party. If they do not own up to where they went wrong, they will not be forgive by the millions whom they let down. This is not to say that they will be condemned to electoral oblivion – it may be that the siren song of a fantasy cut-free world, expressed through merely condemning every fiscally responsible decision that the government takes – begins to resonate with an electorate suffering the delayed effects of Labour’s economic incompetence.

But the opposite is also a real possibility. If the government is right, if the economy recovers (or is well on the way to recover) over the next four years, and if in the meantime Labour has been nothing more than The Opposition, loudly decrying the necessary medicine that is clearly fixing the patient they made ill, they may very well find that 2015 is to their new leader what 2001 was to William Hague.

A better strategy would be to own up to their errors now, to perform a public mea culpa, and begin to chart a new course, putting the failed past behind them. This would be easier than they might think. Undoubtedly, this would fuel a media frenzy and Lib Dem and Tory condemnation. But in the long run (and four years is a very long time in politics) this would clear the way for a Labour revival. I would not welcome it, but it would be the right course for their party.

More to the point, it may very well be the course that the new leader chooses to chart. Like so many selections, the candidates are undoubtedly pandering to the members now, but planning to swing back towards the centre-ground of the wider electorate later. If the new leader deserves his crown, he will make his peace with the past soon after his election. If so, a more thoughtful and serious Opposition may follow.

3 Responses to “Labour’s new leader needs to make peace with the past”

  1. Dilettante Says:

    Can any other candidate than Mili-D seriously deliver a meaningful swing to the centre?

  2. The Druid Says:

    Not sure I agree with the underlying assumption of this piece. Did the voters in May give an “unqualified verdict”? A narrow loss, after 3 terms in power, headed by a deeply personally unpopular PM while in the midst of a financial crisis. I would say it was a highly qualified verdict.

    I am not a Labour supporter and never have been. But I think it is easy to overestimate their weakness at the moment.

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