If Labour is to have any chance of returning to government at the first time of asking then it could well benefit from looking closely at how David Cameron and the Tory Party successfully used a period in opposition to reposition and ‘rebrand’ itself. Last week’s election result gave a clear and unambiguous message to the Labour Party: renew, or prepare for yet another long period in the wilderness years. If Labour is to continue to be a major force in British politics then as well as electing a strong visionary leader with a clear sense of direction and purpose the party also needs to look closely at its current image or ‘brand’ and remember that it cannot choose simply between either style or substance as though they are in some way mutually exclusive.
However, we need to also learn some other lessons from the Tories. It took the Conservative Party two lost elections before enough people were willing to back them. If Labour really is serious about getting swiftly back into government then it cannot afford to go through a long, painful and potentially damaging process of internal dissension. The truth is that many Labour members and supporters will have opposing interpretations of why we lost or about the direction we now need to take if we are to regain much of our lost support. Some will want the party to be more passionately principled, whilst others will stress the need for sensible pragmatism. There will be calls for the new leader to champion the state whilst at the same time allowing market forces to operate with minimal impunity; to attack the causes of poverty but to also be the party that promotes aspiration. The longer these conflicting priorities are debated and discussed the longer we are likely to spend in opposition. Our core message should be simple and unambiguous: our values have not changed and our mission as a party is a clear today as it was a century ago – we really are stronger as a nation when we come together than we can ever be apart.
Labour’s next leader should only propose change for a purpose. That purpose should centre on renewing the party’s policies, its systems and structures in order to ensure that we are properly equipped to exploit the opportunities to reconnect with our traditional supporters and with the millions of voters who feel so badly let down by the duplicitous Liberal Democrats. If Labour is to learn from this defeat then it will need to be more proactive in its consultation and dialogue. For too long ordinary party members have felt ignored and removed from the leadership. The new leader should recognise that members want to be heard and they want to be listened to.
Perhaps even more important though is the need for the party to be more proactive in consulting and engaging local communities. It is only when local parties reach out and get involved in their communities that people will see Labour politics as a way of helping them deal with their problems and realising their hopes for a better future. A renewed Labour Party should be the natural place for people to turn to when they want to change things because a party that gets things done locally – and nationally – is a party that will keep winning elections.
A renewed Labour Party will need to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it will also need to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. The forces of conservatism are not confined to our new coalition government, they exist within our own party and it will be up to those of us who believe passionately in the core values of our movement to take on the cynics and the pessimists within our own ranks, to become the change we want to see – be it in our party or in our country.
Who we are is who we were. Labour’s core values can and must inform any future ‘rebranding’ of the party, but we should not be afraid to do things differently. New Labour may well be over, but Labour renewed is alive with possibility.