UK Politics

End of an era? Going forward, unity is the key

This is a cross-post by Ben Harris from Labour List

As I sit to write this, it is not long since Gordon Brown, his wife Sarah and his two young boys walked down the length of Downing Street for the last time. Gordon was a Prime Minister and a party leader who attracted his share of opprobrium, including from party members – but only ever because we wished the best for our party, and in stark contrast to the unrestrained festival of hate visited upon him by the Tory and latterly the so-called “liberal” press. But it was in any case touching to see a man walk free of the burdens of office with something of a spring in his step. A far cry from the image of a grasping, power-hungry and brooding figure that we have been fed. You might say that he never better became his political life than in the manner of its ending. It would be easy at a moment like this to sound overly portentous, but the historic nature of the occasion is clear, and the stakes are equally so.

I think it is perhaps not a matter of controversy to suggest that the election results were not as bad as many expected. I sat with others in a Haringey committee room as the end of that long Thursday approached, with a terrible sense of foreboding. I feared that the exit poll might have heralded the beginning of the end of the party as a national force capable of providing an alternative government.

But that didn’t happen. We held the Conservatives to a 5% swing and had some magnificent results – Hammersmith and Birmingham Edgbaston being two of my favourite surprises. And, as I write this, Gordon Brown says his farewells to party workers, reminding us that with the media against us, massively outspent, an economic crisis, the expenses scandal and the inevitable disappointments that scratch the patina of any government over 13 long years, we fought an incredibly strong campaign. Our “ground war” was the match of any.

But it wasn’t just the usual two-party affair, the known enemy. I cut my teeth in politics in Oxford and inner London. In these parts of the world and in many others, we know that the Liberal Democrats have visited Conservative-style cuts on services for the vulnerable, that their actions have in the past made a mockery of their claim to represent a progressive option.

Gordon Brown makes the case that there is a progressive majority in this country. It is not something that I have always been convinced of during the long, dark nights of the soul that this campaign has engendered. The idea that Britain is an essentially conservative country and that New Labour represented but a brief interregnum seemed an unassailable case at points. But it turns out that my pessimism was wrong, and that Gordon Brown is right. After everything thrown at us, our 258 seats, our 200 gains in council seats across the country and a Conservative vote share of only 36% stand as testament to our sheer hard work, and to the faith that millions of working people still place in us. Whilst we should not ignore inconvenient facts (our 29%, though it could have been so much worse, is second only to our nadir of 1983, albeit in a much less two-party environment), it is our task now to show that only Labour can truly represent the hopes and aspirations of the majority.

But we know that this is not a time for self-congratulation. A nervous mopping of the brow at what could have been we might allow ourselves, but now is the time to redouble our efforts. There are wide forces arrayed against us.

A few brief observations.

Much as some in the party wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to the Liberal Democrats, recent events – the sight of David Cameron’s jovial, smiling features in front of Number Ten – show that that can no longer be sustainable. Whatever the rights and wrongs of bending over backwards for Clegg on PR (and to my mind the maintenance of a majoritarian electoral system based on a constituency link is an essential element both of the responsive nature of our democracy and a buttress of unity within our party), the Liberal Democrats chose to take a less advantageous deal from the Conservatives rather than deal with Labour. This is the most powerful and potent weapon to be used on the doorstep that we could imagine. There have always been superior reasons for supporting our party over the Liberals, but never before have these been so neatly encapsulated in one distillate fact. For we now see that some Liberal Democrat voters are an essential part of our progressive majority, but that their party cannot be. They spoke during the campaign – as some of our leaders sailed Icarus-like close to the Sun with their careful not-quite-advocacy of tactical voting – of replacing Labour as the party of progress. If there is any justice, if there is any fight and vim and vigour in our party, then these words will return to haunt them.

Secondly, if we are to grapple with the threats and opportunities that face us, unity will be key. There will be those in the party, as there always have been, who seek to decry the record of our 13 years, to shout betrayal, to feed the “they’re all the same” narrative. If only we had been just a little (or a lot, depending on relative levels of rantiness) more left wing, then all would be different. “Let us engage in long sessions of self-criticism, comrades, and all shall be well.” We must resist this temptation. I make no apologies for sitting firmly on the moderate wing of our party, but I fully recognise that our party is a broad church. Whether New Labour or Old, Blairite or Brownite, social democrat or socialist, we hang together or we hang separately. If we are to convince the electorate once again of our merits, we must be sure in our own rhetoric of the success of our record.

Finally, we must be a responsible opposition. Whilst we must hit the government hard where we disagree with it, relentlessly and forcefully, we must also show that we are capable of forming a credible alternative government. That means being open and honest with the public about the economic situation and the need for deficit reduction measures. It means picking and choosing our fights. It means articulating a social democratic theory and practice in relation to an era of public service famine and not plenty. It means laying out the case for our spending restraint proposals rather than Liberal-Tory proposals, asking people to choose who they trust to make the tough choices. It means truly understanding that socialism is indeed the language of priorities.

I expected this campaign to leave me demotivated. Relentless hard work with nothing to show for it. Shell-shocked – blinking, perhaps, at the bright new dispensation: member of an ailing collectivist social democratic party in a new era of individualist politics. On the contrary. I’ve been inspired by our resilience, and by the hard work and comradeship of so many fellow members and supporters. The unending commitment on the part of so many unsung heroes to slog through the media chaff and hatred. People like you and me. Other people seem to have been inspired too, as we’re told more than 1,000 people have joined Labour in the last 24 hours.

Because with a fair wind, hard work and unity this doesn’t have to be the end of an era. David Cameron and Nick Clegg can be but a brief blot on the progressive history of our Century. The 20th Century was, for all its great reforms, a Conservative century in governmental terms. This Tory-Liberal coalition – a throw-back, a half-remembered nightmare from a sepia-tinged past – gives us the opportunity, should we choose to grasp it with sufficient vigour, to make the 21st Century a Labour century, as it has been thus far.