Only losers make concession speeches

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Yes: it is time to concede and move on. Inequality doesn’t matter, social democracy is finished, the Conservatives are basically right about everything… and, may I ask, would you consider voting Labour at the next general election?

That is an unfair caricature of the political practice of “concede and move on” (CAMO) as some perceive it to be operating in the Labour party today. CAMO is over 20 years old. It dates back to a realisation made by Tony Blair, and shared by his adviser, the late Philip Gould, that after four consecutive defeats between 1979 and 1992 the Labour party had lost credibility with too many voters. It was futile continuing to fight on old, vanquished territory. Much better to accept that you had lost certain arguments forever, that the voters had moved on, and that you had to move on too.

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CAMO is, in a sense, a welcome antidote to another political mantra: There Is No Alternative. Mrs Thatcher’s proud claim that she was “not for turning” – not actually borne out by events of course – nonetheless became part of political mythology. It was believed. Never mind if everyone is telling you that the poll tax is a catastrophe, or that your personal style is destroying much of the support you have left within the party. You plough on. You are not for turning.

CAMO is quite different. It is based on the reasonable idea that you probably have to start where people are. Telling voters that they are wrong, or declaring that “there must be no compromise with the electorate”, is no way to win.

Every leading Labour figure is currently being asked whether, in government, the party “spent too much”. There is no good accurate and succinct answer to that question. Having done a few broadcast interviews during and just after the election I can confirm it is a hard question to answer well.

If the answer is “no” then it is easy to portray the party as reckless and irresponsible. The fact the deficit was small at the time the financial crisis struck is interesting only to economists and unshakeably loyal supporters. That Spain and Ireland both had balanced budgets when global disaster struck, and then went on to suffer far greater damage than the UK, is hopelessly exotic and irrelevant.

The long and accurate answer to the “spent too much” question does concede that the deficit existed, and that after 10 years of growth under Labour that deficit could and should have been smaller. But was there a deficit simply because of excessive spending, or also because of energetic tax avoidance and evasion? If the charge of spending too much is valid, which new school buildings should not have been constructed, and which medical treatments not offered? (And by the way, will anyone ever ask the Conservatives if they were right to commit to matching Labour’s spending plans up to 2008? Thought not.)

Perhaps all of the above does not matter in the slightest. It is too late. The argument has been lost. Which is why some Labour leadership and deputy leadership candidates have been prepared to offer a brief “yes” to the “spent too much” question. It saves time. It looks humble and contrite. It stops the interviewer from asking the question again. Concede and move on.

The danger in this approach is obvious. CAMO is a neat and effective option on the right issue, at the right time. It is not a substitute for thought, or for coming up with an alternative idea. It does not suit every situation. It is too simple a mechanism to deal with complicated problems.

Junking much if not all of what you have just campaigned on a few weeks earlier is not a good look. If Tony Blair could argue, 48 hours after the election, that “Ed [Miliband] was absolutely right to raise the issue of inequality and to say that Labour should focus anew on it”, it would be an odd candidate who ignored that view.

The leadership and deputy leadership campaigns should be a time for honest disagreement and constructive debate. But a bidding war to see who can concede and move on the furthest would not just be unseemly, and damaging to Labour, it probably wouldn’t be a very successful approach either. There’s another Blair line that is worth remembering. In leadership campaigns, as in everything else, what matters is what works.

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