Burying everything New Labour did is not the road to recovery

It is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the political book, which is why it is always played by an incoming government at the expense of their defeated opponents. Dirty up the record of your vanquished predecessors in order to cast the blame in their direction for everything wrong and make yourself look like a refreshing change. The voters will probably give you the benefit of believing this because they have just chosen to eject the people you are damning.
The historian Tristram Hunt, newly elected as Labour MP for Stoke, puts it nicely: “Ever since the scribes of the Renaissance branded the Middle Ages as ‘the Dark Ages’, propagandists have deployed history to codify the future. You rubbish the past as a lost opportunity of waste, indecision and stupidity. And you celebrate the present as a blessed release from such hopelessness.”
The coalition will want to blacken Labour’s record. The Tories and the Lib Dems will have an additional incentive to do so in order to displace on to their inheritance from Labour the blame for the excruciating spending cuts and accompanying tax rises. Blame not us, but them, will be the cry from the government side. David Cameron gave Labour a taste of this medicine during the opening debate on the Queen’s Speech when the Tory leader scorned Harriet Harman for failing to begin her contribution with an apology for leaving the place in such a mess.
If new governments are fortunate, they are helped by the behaviour of the opponents who have just been dumped out of power as the defeated sink into tortured introspection. The opening phase of the contest for the Labour leadership is already an orgy of competitive self-flagellation. The contenders come not to praise New Labour, but to bury it. This was to be expected from Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, the two leftwingers who hope to get on the ballot. Both were declared enemies of the Labour government even when it was in power. They were disillusioned with New Labour before it had even taken office and became more disaffected with Tony Blair the more elections he won.
It is more eyebrow-raising that the denigration of New Labour has also been joined by the Miliband brothers, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, a quartet who served their political apprenticeships in the courts of Blair and Brown and then ascended to the cabinet. They are jostling to criticise the government of which they were very recently prominent members.
David Miliband says that New Labour is done with. He is especially sharp about its timidity in tackling the City and the super-rich. He suggests that New Labour was too trapped in the 1980s and 1990s and has little to teach the party now. In its place, he proposes “Next Labour”, a concept still in search of a definition from him or any of his rivals.
His younger brother traces the beginning of the decline to the Iraq war which led to a “catastrophic loss of trust”. Ed Miliband is not wrong about that, but he stretches our credulity when he claims that, had he been an MP then, he would have voted against the invasion. Had he been at Mr Brown’s side at the time rather than on sabbatical in America, I am pretty certain he would have acted exactly as his older brother and Ed Balls did. Once Tony Blair had fixed on war, and Gordon Brown had decided to back it, their aides all worked together to win a majority for it in Parliament.
Ed Balls identifies the abolition of the 10p tax band as a major misjudgment of Gordon Brown’s premiership which did Labour’s reputation serious damage amongst the party’s natural supporters. There’s no arguing with that, but the needle on my bullshit detector is in the red zone when Mr Brown’s closest ally suggests that he was secretly opposed to scrapping the 10p band all along. Others who were inside the Treasury at the time of that decision remember things rather differently.
Andy Burnham does not resile from the Iraq war, which at least makes him stand out from the others and may be enough to secure Tony Blair’s vote, assuming the former prime minister is still a member of the Labour party. Mr Burnham does agree with other contestants that Labour lost touch with the concerns of people who ought to be among its supporters and failed to respond to discontent about immigration, antisocial behaviour and crime.
Labour’s first instinct when it has lost power is always to go through a period of flaying the leadership for betraying the party’s ideals and voters when they were in office. The novelty this time around is that those who were part of the leadership are doing the whipping. To a point, this is natural and even desirable. Labour did commit grave blunders in office. Labour does need to understand why it received a miserable 29% of the vote, just a percentage point higher than Michael Foot in 1983, which made it the party’s worst performance in a general election since the First World War.
Some of the reasons for that defeat are so bleeding obvious that they need not detain the leadership contenders for much time. Labour presided over the worst recession since the 1930s. Three terms is a long stretch in power. Thirteen years turned New Labour old, tired, unimaginative and crippled by the burden of its mistakes.
David Miliband is right to say: “In a change election, we were perceived to be defending the old order. Future is the most important word in politics, but we looked out of time.” Ed Miliband is correct to say: “We came to seem more caretakers than idealists – more technocratic than transformative.” Ed Balls accurately observes: “People felt we had stopped listening.”
These are obvious accounts of some of the reasons why Labour lost. They are also ways of not addressing some subjects which are just too uncomfortable for these candidates. None of them has much to say about Gordon Brown beyond offering encomiums to the departed prime minister. Labour is a sentimental party that doesn’t like to kick an ex-leader when he is down and out. The truth, which members of the last cabinet will only admit to in private, is that Gordon Brown’s lack of communication skills, strategic failure to renew Labour in office and personal unpopularity probably cost the party around 40 seats at the election.
That is the difference between the Con-Lib coalition that is now governing Britain and the Lab-Lib coalition that might have been under a different leader. This is difficult history for Ed Balls because he ran the 2006 coup against Tony Blair to lever Gordon Brown into Number 10. This is tricky territory too for Ed Miliband because he was part of the Brownite team that then stitched up the succession so that their master was crowned without a contest. David Miliband and Andy Burnham sat in the cabinet that knew Gordon Brown was leading Labour over the cliff edge but never summoned up the nerve to do anything about it.
None of the candidates seems any keener to discuss the size of the deficit, why it grew too large and how they’d be tackling it. This is not to say that the scale of the defeat was simply down to the last prime minister. New Labour was too insolent about civil liberties, too cringeing to high finance, too tolerant of sleaze, insufficiently dynamic about public services and too crabbed about welfare and constitutional reform.
Labour will only be on the road to recovery once it understands why it lost. Yet it is unlikely to win again if it is so consumed by regret and guilt about its failures that it also forgets what made it a success. Humility about the last government’s vices needs to be balanced with pride in its successes which ranged from peace in Northern Ireland to the minimum wage. It did win three elections in a row, a very rare feat in British politics. That was an achievement the more remarkable given that Labour had never previously held on to power for two full terms. The core New Labour prospectus, that economic efficiency can be combined with social justice and decent public services, remains as attractive in 2010 as it was in 1997. They ought to take it as a compliment that the coalition accepts much of its legacy. At the last election, pollsters found that voters still preferred the values they associated with Labour to the values they associated with the Tories. The problem was that they were sick and tired of Labour government.
The essential insight of the creators of New Labour was that the party could only win and retain power by appealing to both aspirational voters and its more traditional supporters. That will be no less true at the next election. Labour’s next chief will be a failure if he leads the party up a narrow, tribal cul-de-sac. That is precisely the direction in which David Cameron would like to shove them.
As the sons of New Labour bury that which gave them their careers, they need to have a clear view of why it won as well as why it finally went down to defeat. Disavowing everything about the previous 13 years is neither necessary nor wise. And, anyway, there’ll be quite enough dirtying up by the other side.

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