The party of perpetual opposition?

9th January, 2012 9:15 am

Lots of people will have been pondering the state of the Labour Party recently. Unless you are particularly deluded, it’s not hard to see that our fortunes aren’t looking great. Even if you put aside future prospects, the emotional toil that comes from constant and regular negativity toward one’s political party can wear down even the most loyal members. Ed Miliband’s leadership was meant to be the beginning of a new phase in our party’s history, drawing a line under the very painful three-year government of Gordon Brown. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, his leadership now looks like an 18-month extension of that painful period culminating with our election loss in 2010.

Day after day discussion is about the state of the leadership, not about the issues that matter. This has accelerated markedly over the last couple of months – talk of who will replace Miliband is now common in political circles. Week in, week out, there’s a new indication of a leadership crisis, from dire approval polls (the latest one puts Miliband a point behind Clegg, who is himself 23 points behind Cameron), to the farcical handling of Diane Abbott’s racist comments last week. The poor guy can’t even run a Twitter account properly, as demonstrated spectacularly on Friday when he or a staffer mistakenly tweeted ‘Blackbusters’ instead of ‘Blockbusters’, in a week of heightened racial tension.

But as tempting as it is to hang all the blame for Labour’s woes around Ed Miliband’s neck, I’ve been wondering lately if our problems run deeper. I wonder if there is some sort of malignant cultural or psychological force in the party’s psyche which manages to constantly renew itself. There are patterns of behaviour which repeat themselves in our history. For example, we only served more than one concurrent term once (under New Labour). We’ve only been in power for 30 years in the 110 years since our founding (thirteen of which under New Labour). When we lose power we tend to stay out of power for long periods. We select leaders who consistently fail to connect meaningfully with the nation they seek to be prime minister of.

I argue therefore, that the current troubles facing Labour are simply a manifestation of age-old patterns and attitudes. We left power and the party elected a leader who is ideologically pleasing to left-wingers, but who the electorate see as aloof and strange. After sixteen years of New Labour – a formula which was proven unequivocally to work (three concurrent Labour terms in office) – the majority in the party are desperate to run away from political success to the hinterland of left-wing back-patting and earnest, well intentioned, but wholly useless and ineffective opposition. The pattern is repeating itself.

Why is it that a man who led Labour to three election successes is so hated, but leaders who, for example, have lost Labour two elections in a row are lauded as heroes? I just cannot for the life of me get my head around it.

Tony Blair is partly to blame for today’s mess though. He did not complete the job which he set out to do in the early-mid 1990s; the Labour Party was only temporarily reformed and the proof is in the pudding. He didn’t bring up enough reformist talent behind him to lead the fight for the next generation. David Miliband was a weak successor in waiting without the fire needed to go for the jugular and save the party from suicide in 2010. James Purnell didn’t have the political clout needed to rise to prominence in time. Meanwhile, Brown and his motley crew were wise enough to plant the seeds for future leadership and clear the way for them, hence the make-up of today’s Shadow Cabinet and the leadership itself.

The overwhelmingly negative reaction to Tony Blair has also set something ablaze in the wider psyche of the party. Would-be future reformists, Blairites, New Labourists, visitors from Mars, right-wing Labourites, whatever you want to call them, are not encouraged or supported in their endeavour up the party hierarchy. The chips are stacked against them. The message from the top is that people who thought the New Labour model, or a model similar to it, is the right way to run the Labour Party or the country, needn’t bother bringing those thoughts and ideas into the work of the party today. Assimilate, fit in, go left or go home. Stand up at a CLP meeting and set out a vision anything like New Labour, and expect to be heckled. The cycle is not only repeating itself, but entrenching itself in the shape of a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) with a shortage of spine and a shortage of different, compelling ideas and visions to the current groupthink at the top of the party.

This is a recipe for disaster for the foreseeable future. How is it that we finally stumbled upon a model which got Labour out of its perpetual doldrums but are so inept at learning its lessons for the 21st century? Are we that intellectually vacuous that we aren’t able to disagree with some of Blair’s politics but yet learn the essence of his political approach which led to three terms in a row for a Labour government? Did the successful and authoritative New Labour project fail to re-invent the party for the 21st century?

Labour served in office for 30 of its first 110 years of existence. If the patterns I’ve described continue to be perpetuated by the groupthink, lack of boldness, attachment to out-dated political arguments, very, very poor leadership and a failure to bring up a varied and talented next generation, I guarantee that we won’t spend much more than 30 of the next 110 years in office either. Labour politics is meant to be the politics of care and attention to those in the world who need it, it’s about finding a vision of a better Britain and spreading opportunity as far and wide as possible. We have achieved lots in our time in office, but what purpose does it serve being the perpetual party of opposition?

Editor’s note: A number of readers contacted us with regard to the riginap title of this post – “The political cancer at the heart of the Labour Party”. We have taken those comments on board and amended the title. Apologies for any offence caused.

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