The Labour Party is not very good at losing. It repeatedly goes into denial about why it loses and tears itself apart. We are beginning to see the denial and soon we shall see the gore of the bitter feuds to come.
It is also not very good at winning. Since Clemente Attlee took Labour into power after the Second World War and shaped our modern political consensus, there have only been two Labour leaders that have won general elections: Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. Unbelievably, since Attlee lost in 1951, there has been a consistent failure to gauge the public mood correctly and defeat the Conservatives, even when they were there for the taking.
It should be remembered that serial winners Wilson and Blair both retired while prime minister, they were not kicked out of office – it was their replacements, Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown, that subsequently lost.
On each occasion the party then turned to the Left, reaching for its natural comfort blanket of more leftist ideology. The mantra is always that it has not been socialist enough, when all the evidence available is that it has frightened the voters by being too red in tooth and claw.
Michael Foot was a disaster for Labour, and this year Ed Miliband was in some respects worse. Routed in Scotland and humiliated across Britain, Labour is now at a crossroads – and looks like it still wants its comfort blanket of more socialism when what it really requires is to face up to modern realities of what moves people to give a political party their trust. It needs a leader that can wean it off its failed policies – but is there anyone standing that can do it?
Analysis of the May general election suggests that Ed Miliband’s rhetoric appealed to many people, but unfortunately too many of them were people who are habitually not interested in voting – for anyone. They couldn’t get off their backsides because they were not motivated enough (are they ever?), did not trust Miliband (or any politicians, for that matter) to deliver, and could not see how his party’s policies directly benefited them.
Instead, many in Scotland voted SNP and many in England and Wales voted Ukip because the leaders of those parties appeared to stand up for the voters’ interests. And, yes, many even voted Tory – probably because they did not want to risk the economic recovery that might eventually reach them (if it had not already). Enough Liberal Democrats also voted Tory rather than go to Labour for the same reason, delivering many Lib Dem seats to David Cameron.
So the news this week that the most left-wing of the Labour leadership candidates, Jeremy Corbyn, is now the front-runner follows a historical pattern of denial that will be followed by fratricide.
Instead of fighting old battles that it has repeatedly lost (such as advocating higher taxes and weaker defence), Labour needs to look at what it said in the past that helped it win, what policies actually worked and what today’s voters actually need and want.
It should not allow the mistake of the Iraq War that hovers in the public consciousness to stain its domestic achievements.
When it comes to the economy it has to be about jobs – including the acceptance that poorly paid work is better than no work at all. Attacking internships, zero-hours contracts and low pay misses the point that such work is valuable to people moving into better jobs.
Far better would be to take the low paid out of tax (like the Tories and Lib Dems did), but go further by cutting VAT and National insurance payments. Such policies help the low paid financially far more than volumes of employment regulations and laws – while leaving the choices with the worker – and are difficult for Tories to reverse without becoming unpopular.
When it comes to aspiration it has to be about having more opportunity rather than levelling everyone down. Nothing opens up doors for people more than education – accepting that widening access and raising standards should not be mutually exclusive is Labour’s challenge. Punishing good schools is a fundamental mistake; spreading competition to raise standards through greater choice was a Labour success story and needs expanding.
When it comes to health, it has to be about quality of life rather than the length of it. What is the point of being bullied into living ten years more when for too many those extra years are miserable? Labour needs to accept that the NHS is not the best health service in the world – but believe that it could be, by allowing greater diversity and innovation in supply of services rather than working to targets that distort best medical practice. Choice, independence and diversity improved education under Labour and it could do the same for health.
Jobs, education, health – these are the core issues, not the reheated student union causes of feminism, disarmament and showing solidarity with the latest cause célèbre in some far off land that ultimately places people here in a worse position than before.
Labour needs to encourage and welcome people that do better for themselves – because these people pull us all up – by removing obstacles to success rather than putting obstacles in their way.
In Scotland, Labour needs to focus on the SNP’s abysmal record on the economy, education and health. After nine years, so much is now worse with no-one to blame but the SNP.
A decent Labour leader could have beaten David Cameron. If Labour chooses a left-wing vaudeville act the joke will be on themselves and the British people will be laughing at them rather than with them.