Don’t mention the War

23rd May, 2012 6:08 pm

Humiliation in Bradford confirms our party cannot move successfully into the future without first dealing with its past. If after years of cuts, gloom and awful government, Labour defectors plus anti-coalition first-time voters do not see Labour as their natural home, we are doing something wrong.

The solution however lies not in changing the identity of our leader but the identity of our party.

To be a compelling alternative we must appear not only distinct from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, but also distinct from who were in 2010 when we scored our second lowest vote since 1918. Significantly, neither Refounding Labour’s review of organisation, nor New Politics Fresh Ideas review of policy have achieved this.

So why has the critical self-reflection that is the pre-condition of positive change been avoided?

Firstly, many MPs and officials lack experience of being in opposition and the opportunity it gives for internal debate and re-invention. Then there is Labour’s historic fear of division, with any candid discussions of our period in office often leading to dark mutterings about “what happened after 1979”. And the third reason we don’t look back is that several senior Labour figures are embarrassed because some of our past mistakes were made them.

But Bradford West proved, in the eyes of many voters, the party is still haunted by its past. And it is not just the ghosts of Iraq we need to lay to rest: it was our PFI that saddled NHS hospitals with a £60bn bill and led to seven London NHS Trusts recently being bailed out; we chastise dinner-for-donors but were seen by many as guilty ourselves of cash-for-peerages; we have never atoned for our collusion with rendition and torture, nor coercing the Attorney General over Iraq.

But what fuels the scepticism of lost Labour voters most is our economic record. The “light touch regulation” that US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner condemned as “an experiment that went tragically wrong”, added to our low tax/high borrowing fiscal policy not only plunged the swollen financial sector (we neglected manufacturing) and the government into a historic debt crisis, it left UK individuals owing £1.5 trillion, including £300bn in second mortgages plus near world record credit card debt. It is the government policy with the worst long-lasting consequences since appeasement and has rendered orthodox policies around growth and deficit reduction obsolete. Do we think that if we don’t mention it, the public are going to forget?

Change for the future entails a conspicuous break with the past. David Cameron got the Tories back into power only after boldly declaring he was “not a Thatcherite” and that “the look, feel and identity of the party” all needed to change.

So does ours. Recently, at a training day for future candidates, I was instructed “to learn from business, particularly customer service and sales” and told that winning elections was not about policies but “selling a brand”. This New Labour mind-set is exactly the sort of baggage the party needs to shed. It is the attitude that has lost us members since 1997 and cost us Bradford West. We are not some advertising agency trying to maximise sales whatever the product, we are a political party trying to build a better world. We must never again look at citizens and see consumers, look at society and see a market, look at services and prioritize choice over standards.

Past misjudgements need to be recognised and repudiated as they have been by the public. You cannot hide the legacy of Tony Blair by raising the spectre of Tony Benn. If the party must learn from “the longest suicide note in history” of 1983 it must also learn lesson from the illegal and duplicitous invasion of a third world country in 2003.

The last time the UK experienced a national crisis to equal the magnitude of today’s was in 1945. Did we respond with an appeal for consensus and continuity? No, rather William Beveridge said “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. Labour was elected by a landslide and established the welfare state we fight to preserve today.

An activist state funded through taxation not future borrowing, an economic policy predicated on reducing inequality not trickle-down wealth funded by growth, a foreign policy guided by transparency not expediency. That is the winning future facing the Labour Party should we be brave enough to confront our past.

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  • This is the best article on Labour List for months – agree with every word.

  • montes5900

    we have to kick out and disown the war criminal MPs in the party i.e. all who supported the murderous invasion of Iraq that resulted in 1 million dead and 5 million children orphaned.  

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      That must be over 100 still sitting MPs.  A brave move, particularly as they can still sit after being disowned (see Eric Joyce as an example).

      • It’s not going to happen, of course, but what an opportunity it would be to clean out the stables!

  • Disagree with you about the Iraq war and that there is anything at all to be gained from re-opening that utterly toxic debate – but bang on about everything else and particularly the managerialism which still infests the party. 

    • treborc1

       Well until you clean the wound of Iraq, then it will keep on festering. Also for me Labour does not like to be reminded but Labour ordered that soldiers who were disabled by wars should be  seen at ATOS , many soldiers who lost legs/arms/ eyes who were in wheelchairs lost benefits.

      Cruddas says he was sorry about voting for the war, but what has changed , we all knew something was wrong when the dossiers went back and forth.

      But how many of Labour MP’s really feel like this, when you hear about Miliband phoning up Blair, then Blair speaking to new MP’s the question is why.

      Progress is a full blown New labour think tank and debating and campaigning group, it;s not campaigning for labour  but New labour.

    • AlanGiles

      It wasn’t just the war itself – it was the lies and deceit which preceded it. Blair knowingly allowed ex-porn scribbler Alistair Campbell to cobble together a dossier based on a 12 year old PHd thesis. Campbell openly boasted that John Scarlett was “a mate”, therefore he knew he would be backed up in the nonsense he concocted. We had a bibulous press secretary, later to tour theatres with his one-man show, like some faded third-rate soap actor instrumental in involving this country in a war that was unwinnable. We had a Prime Minister whose greatest desire was to fawn to the most right-wing President in living memory – that would have been obscene enough if it had been a genuine Tory P.M., but a so-called “Labour” one makes it doubly offensive.

      That should never be forgotten. It should also never be forgotten that Blair personally enriched himself on the back of this war, and I hope when Ed Miliband and the shower who would like to welcome Blair back into domestic politics, remember his greed, his warmongering, his lies and deceit, they remember how toxic the name of Blair still is with a great many people.

      * Bob Brookmeyer (1929-2011)

  • Paul Bell

    Very well written and I agree with every word.

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  • postageincluded

    I think this is very wrong headed. I will assume, perhaps naively, that Mr Sorba is not just using Bradford West as an excuse to indulge in the pleasures of faction fighting. But hard cases still make bad law and hard byelections can prompt bad political strategy.

    It doesn’t really matter if it’s worn in penance for “the Deficit” (as the New Labour Faction were demanding not so long ago) or worn in penance for Iraq (as the Anti-New Labour faction now propose) – sackcloth and ashes is not a good look.

  • Redshift

    I generally agree but the statement ‘not the natural home of first time voters’ seems odd given that the breakdowns of polls have consistently given us over 50% of the vote for the 18-24 group for over a year*. 

    I agree we could be doing better but seemingly in the face of record youth unemployment, scrapping of EMA and trebling of tuition fees we are the natural choice for first time voters.
    *Before anyone says that breakdowns of polls are small samples and are therefore unreliable I agree, but the fact that this has been repeated successively for over a year suggests this is not a dodgy sample. 

  • Daniel Speight

    It seems that a lot of the losses the party suffered both in membership and in reputation can be placed at the door of this adventure in Iraq. Therefore not to at least try to understand what went wrong would be stupidity on the party’s part.

    Myself I think the problem we should beware of is any tendency to a presidential style administration by a Labour prime minister. It would be good to make sure Ed Miliband realizes this too.

  • Brumanuensis

    One of the reasons I was so pleased Ed won the leadership was that it finally meant that those of us who opposed that awful war were able to hear the Labour leader say ‘I think it was wrong’ and obtain release after 7 years of apologias and brazen defences from the top. It was a relief to hear a Labour leader promise not to be so casual about civil liberties, holding out the hope that never again would a Labour government make itself complicit in shipping man and women, many innocent of any crime, to dozens of ‘Villa Grimaldi’ across the world.

    But that time is over. Ed said it and that was enough. I don’t think Bradford West voted against us because of the war – how could that be so with an anti-war leader? It’s far more complicated than that and we have to go forward. No matter how many times we say sorry, we will never undo the war. Learn from mistakes, by all means, but don’t dwell on them.

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