If 2008 was a financial shock to the Labour Party, then 2010 was an economic and political one. Not in the sense that it was a surprise that we lost – there were few who seriously thought Labour could win outright – but in terms of how quickly what we had built in government could be dismantled.
The wilful capitulation of the Lib Dems to the Tory masochism strategy – masterfully explained by Lord Adonis in his recent book – meant that there was a clear parliamentary majority for a comprehensive rolling back of the state. With the exception of a few areas (most notably the NHS) it already feels as if 1997-2010 never happened. The funding taps that Labour turned on in a bid to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth have been turned off or reduced to a trickle.
Economically – what Labour did when we were in power has proved incredibly easy to reverse.
And yet there are changes that Labour made in government that will stand the test of time. Recent weeks have seen a Tory Prime Minister forcing Equal Marriage through parliament against the wishes of many of the backwoodsmen on the benches behind him. The leaps forward in equality legislation under Labour might be scorned by many on the Tory side, but Britain made big advances in terms of gender, race and gay equality over Labour’s 13 years in government. Of course there’s still more to do – much more – but we are so far from Section 28 now it seems like a story from another, grimmer, more hateful Britain that I don’t recognise as my own.
Labour did that.
Similarly, although the Minimum Wage comes under attack periodically from the Tory Right, isn’t rising to the extent that I’d like and is still effectively a poverty wage in many parts of the country – the very idea that the Minimum Wage could be outright abolished seems fanciful. Ludicrous even. The grotesque sight of someone working in a kitchen, or cleaning toilets, for £1 an hour is over.There area my battles still to be fought, but some form of legal floor for workers is here to stay.
On devolution too, Labour made changes that the Tories cannot reverse and which – I hope – will be durable enough to fend off those who would prefer to break up our union.
The difference between these areas and those which involved pumping money into the system – without fundamentally changing it – are stark. Where Labour’s focus is on spending money and merely tinkering with systems, the Tories can wash away everything we did within a matter of months of returning to office. The rising tide of the Tory sea washes away the sandcastles of our years in power, until soon it’s like we were never there – save for those areas in which the changes we made were bigger, more popular or involved a complete cultural shift.
Because if there’s one universal truth in British politics, it’s that the Tories will always win another election. In 2001 people suggested that after two landslide defeats the Tories were dead as a party. 9 years later there was a Tory PM again, and it was Labour who looked to be on the brink of the abyss. The Tories are the most successful electoral machine in British political history, and in power, Labour must always seek to bear in mind that there will be another Tory government again. It’s inevitable.
That doesn’t mean capitulating to or accommodating the Tories though. Quite the opposite. Labour must in future seek to make big, structural changes to the economy – and win the arguments on how money should be spent – that forces the Tories into accommodating the paradigm shifts that we instigate, rather than being willing to accept the shifts made by the Tories, as we were – for example – in the post-Thatcher years.
That’s what Ed Miliband is trying to create – a Britain that the Tories can’t break. A Living Wage, predistribution (hate the word, love the idea), building more affordable homes, full employment and contributory benefits.
It’s all about shifting the entirety of the debate towards work and jobs, communities and homes.
It’s about nothing less than fundamentally changing the British economy in the same way that the last Labour government fundamentally changed British society. And yet the media and the Tories still haven’t realised yet. To be honest, I hope they never realise, until it’s too late for them to do anything about it.
And then, perhaps, in the way we now have a Tory PM arguing for Equal Marriage, one day we’ll have a Tory PM arguing for Full Employment, a higher Living Wage or more affordable housing as a way of cutting the welfare bill.
Thatcher is believed to have said that New Labour was her greatest triumph. The greatest triumph of Ed Miliband would be a New Tory party, advocating policies around work and jobs that benefit the many, not the few.
And it could happen, you know…