How can the Labour Party return to power in five years? What needs to happen for the country to return a Labour Prime Minister to office in 2015? To hope for further economic woe in order to eject the coalition is a little extreme; it does seem likely that Osborne’s aggressive dismantling of the state and fierce spending cuts will achieve its aim of cutting the budget deficit, leaving in its wake a Britain stripped of meaningful social welfare for the poorest.
For many, the reduction of the deficit and the inevitable promise of lower taxes in 2015 will be enough to keep the Tories in power for another five years, with or without the Liberal Democrats. The cuts, at least those we have seen so far, have not stung the middle classes or the rich meaning that many voters, especially in the coalition stronghold of the South, will see no reason to complain. As all the Labour leadership candidates have pointed out; in order to win the next election Labour needs to win back a good proportion of the 5 million voters it has lost since 1997. In my view, there are four key areas Labour need to concentrate on to win back the faith and confidence of the majority of the electorate.
Tony Blair impressed the electorate by bringing the Labour Party into the post Thatcherite world. His symbolic rejection of Clause 4 was a huge gamble but one that paid off and allowed the party to break away from the pain of the 1970’s and leadership of Michael Foot in the early 1980’s. Without question Neil Kinnock and John Smith paved the way for this moment, but Blair was able to seize the day and capture the nations imagination. The new Labour leader cannot make such a decisive ideological statement; in many ways the job is more difficult in 2010 than it was for Blair in 1994.
All candidates are desperately trying to distance themselves from the lexicon of New Labour before we even know how history will judge the era. An obsession with the personalities at the heart of the movement, rather than its actions, has tainted it, perhaps forever. New Labour is now defined as Blair vs Brown, infighting, spin and the Iraq War and the candidates are desperate to leave it behind.
What message can the contenders take to the public in order to inspire them? Many are choosing to return to the core Labour ideals of reducing the gap between rich and poor and creating a fairer, more equal society. Andy Burnham is pushing his National Care Service idea whilst Ed Miliband is pushing out the Living Wage idea beyond London.
These types of ideas are essential but an acknowledgment of the economic instability is also vital. As Alistair Darling pointed out just this week, the deficit needs to be acknowledged and Labour needs to offer it’s own solutions. Hiding behind the facts did not help in the election, it certainly won’t help in opposition. How can Britain pay for itself whilst maintaining a supportive, progressive society? This is the real question and the next leader has to be able answer it.
Innovative ideas and even radicalism will be embraced by the party and electorate alike but debate needs to be open and honest. The British public are progressive and wish to see a fair Britain but they will not support initiatives without knowing how they can be paid for.
After the conclusion of the leadership battle the PLP will need to regroup and make some firm commitments. Key figures need to ensure that the factionalism of recent times is eradicated and that MPs focus solely on becoming a tight, sharp, well-briefed opposition party with the ability to challenge the coalition on key policy areas. Many Labour MPs have never been in opposition and they should relish the opportunity to scrutinise, analyse and probe every aspect of coalition policy whilst honing their parliamentary and debating skills.
There are murmurs of dissatisfaction across the government from disgruntled right wingers to bewildered leftist Liberal Democrats and a shrewd Labour Party should (and will) continuously highlight these fault lines. Watching Andy Burnham discussing health policy against a bumbling Francis Maude on Question Time was impressive, his inside knowledge and experience of the NHS places him in an incredibly strong position to probe and tear apart proposals both in parliament and in the media. The combined experience of the shadow cabinet and ex-ministers on back benches needs to be maximised to question all government departments.
Labour also has to be prepared to make solid proposals in opposition which move away from the previous government. For example, Ed Miliband has accepted the introduction of ID cards was something that was hugely unpopular and a threat to civil liberties. This is the optimum opportunity for Labour to u-turn on unpopular and weak policy ideas – it needs to be used strategically and effectively.
Membership of the Labour Party has increased by tens of thousands since the election and, as I have argued before, these members need to feel wanted, valued and effective. The leadership of the party need to mobilise these members into small, localised armies working for the Labour Party on the ground. This isn’t just delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. This is working within communities for communities wearing their Labour membership like a badge of honour. Labour is the most compassionate, socially minded party in British politics; we know this. Its links to trade unions and cooperatives are vitally important but we can do much more.
We know that the coalition austerity measures will have a negative impact on many community projects and groups and Labour needs to be visible and on the ground with its support, pro-activity and local lobbying; not just voicing anger in Westminster
David Miliband has recognised this with his movement for change programme – inspired by the work of Barack Obama’s campaign, but this needs to continue and become a backbone of the organisation.
Local members are the eyes and ears of the party; and need to be listened to. This is of course both obvious and common sense, but one can’t help feeling that had the previous government listened harder to public feeling regarding ID cards, immigration and the Iraq War these issues would have been dealt with very differently.
Labour needs its new leader to do many things, but it will not be an easy job. He or she will need to manage the legacy of and be accountable for the previous 13 years in government, give the party a new message and ensure it is stuck to, unite the party – a much harder task in opposition than in government – and be Prime Ministerial material. A tough call.
All the candidates are strong and have a core level of support, but whether we like it or not, the new leader has to appeal to floating, Liberal Democrat and Conservative voters in order for Labour to win the next election. Diane Abbott and Ed Balls do not have that ability. Andy Burnham does not have it, yet. Only a Miliband can engage with the majority of the electorate and set Labour on course for power again. But which one?
David Miliband is without doubt the more accomplished politician and this is apparent in his oratory; he has a solid reputation on the world stage and a strong desire to lead, but for many voters he is just too close to the New Labour project and is by proxy not to be trusted. He has received the backing of many senior ex-cabinet ministers including Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Alan Johnson, all intrinsically linked to the Blair-Brown years and now elder statesmen of the party.
Ed Miliband can win the contest. He has put forward a clear mandate, and doesn’t appear to be afraid of shifting the party through a series of clear and well intended proposals including a national living wage and a high pay commission. He proved to be popular as climate change secretary and is committed to a modern, progressive Britain.
Ed Miliband is in a unique position, as was David Cameron, in that he could use the position of leader of the opposition to fully develop his style and shape his public persona. Not enough is known about him by the public for too many preconceptions to have been drawn, and this could be used very much to Labours advantage and allow the public to warm to him organically as he grows into the role.