The sad truth is that (despite a few notable exceptions) the previous government did not make it easy for the electorate to vote Labour with any enthusiasm. On the doorstep in 2010 the divide between the concerns of core Labour voters and those of a PR-fixated cabinet never seemed wider. In fairness though; the history of Labour governments was ever thus.
Since the 1920s the story goes something like this: Labour supporters are near euphoric when victory is achieved there is then a period of hard slog as the party faces up to the harsh responsibilities of being in government. The party then accuses the leadership of betrayal and the leadership accuses the party of ingratitude. Supporters then become disillusioned which leads to defeat at the polls. We then experience a long period of Tory government before the next outbreak of euphoria and so on and so forth.
The result in Bradford West is an illustration that after an unprecedented 13 straight years in power many of Labour’s own members are not certain what they want. Many want the party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic; to be a party that proudly honours its past while not neglecting to shape both its and the nation’s future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but also support aspiration.
Ed Miliband stood for the leadership of the Labour party on a platform that argued that the renewal that was undertaken in order to gain power in 1997 needs to be repeated if Labour is win at the next election. In the mid-1990s Labour successfully occupied the centre ground, it modernised and reached out beyond its own activists and turned the Tories into a replica of what it itself used to be – a party with a narrow base, a party obsessed about the wrong things and a party seen as old fashioned and out of touch.
Can Labour win under Ed Miliband? Of course it can but I strongly believe – and the failure of the tactics deployed in Bradford West seem to endorse my view – that the best prospects of future success for our party lie not in the puerile tactics of the spin doctor; politics has to be about more than the desire to wrong foot your opponent.
The prospects for future success for Labour lies not in defending the status quo of what is still a highly unequal Britain, rather it is in working with the British people to help rid our nation of some ugly realities such as child poverty and the still endemic inequalities in both health and education, inequalities that could well be even further entrenched once some of the savage and unnecessary cuts begin to fully impact. The politics of ambition and optimism must also be the politics of principle – we should attack our opponents for what they espouse, for their policies and not for their personal shortcomings.
In the coming weeks I hope that Ed will put the case that for a politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution. He needs to show that a renewed Labour party will seek to better reflect the aspirations of ordinary people whilst being realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. Ambition, hope and aspiration are far more appealing than a constant reciting of the achievements of the past. Ed has been consistent about the need for the Labour party to be clearer about what we stand for as a movement and for the need for the party to reach out to the communities that it seeks to represent and support. He now needs to show how, under his leadership, our party can set about winning back the trust and confidence of the British people.