• What’s Left for Labour?

    Barring a miracle, and miracles seem likely to be in short supply, Labour will lose the next election. The question is not the survival of the Labour government, but the survival of Labour as a force in British politics.

    Ensuring a positive answer to that question should be the sole preoccupation of Labour loyalists and activists between now and the election. A change of leadership is unlikely to make a real difference and should be considered only if it would.

    The lost election, and the failures that preceded and caused it, are not solely the responsibility of Gordon Brown. Yes, he has failed to provide the requisite miracle, but the need for a miracle is the result of cumulative failures over nearly a decade and a half of lost opportunities and abandonment of principle.

    It is ironic that we are told that the greatest threat of a leadership challenge now seems to come from the remaining standard-bearers of New Labour. The existential crisis for Labour is, after all, the end-state of the whole New Labour project. It is the end of New Labour, not a renewed New Labour, that is now needed; we can all have too much of a New thing.

    But all is not lost. Political parties can and do recover from electoral wipe-outs. My own native New Zealand provides a good and encouraging example.

    The New Zealand Labour government of 1984 confounded opponents and supporters alike by embarking on a ferocious revolution that saw New Zealand become the test-bed for a daring experiment in far-right, free-market economics. The electorate suspended judgment in 1987 and gave the Labour government a further chance; but by 1990, it was thumbs down, ushering in nine years of conservative government.

    Many people felt that electoral defeat was not the most serious issue for Labour as it faced its future. The real problem was finding a way back to a role in New Zealand politics which would allow Labour to re-connect with supporters who had been confounded and felt betrayed by their party in government.

    The abandonment by New Labour in Britain of what might have been expected of a Labour government was not nearly as dramatic or initially shocking as the policy reversal delivered by New Zealand Labour. But it was equally far-reaching and ultimately distressing to Labour’s natural supporters.

    From the Iraq invasion to complicity in torture, from the obeisance to the rich to the faith in the infallibility of the unfettered market, from the infringement of civil liberties to the belief that spin mattered more than action, from the subordination of economic policy to the interests of bankers to the devaluing of the public sector, New Labour has dashed the hopes of Labour voters and distorted the political landscape. As in New Zealand in the 1980s, voters no longer know what to expect, or where to look if they are to secure the policy framework they want.

    The good news is that, in New Zealand, the sense of betrayal and disorientation engendered by Labour’s performance in government was followed by a period in the wilderness but was not terminal. After nine years of opposition, Labour returned to office in 1999 and – even with the added challenge of a new proportional representation electoral system – then delivered a competent and well-regarded government which not only won two further elections but also restored sense and order to New Zealand’s political scene.

    Even after an election loss last year, Labour remains the government in waiting. Voters know that, if they want a left of centre government, Labour will deliver. Even in opposition, Labour remains identified with left positions and attitudes and is widely seen as where voters will go when they tire of the new conservative government.

    The leader of that nine-year Labour government was Helen Clark, recently identified by an opinion poll as the greatest living New Zealander. How did she manage to restore Labour’s fortunes and its rightful position as a contender for and deliverer of government?

    The answer should surely be of some interest to those who might aspire to the leadership of Labour in Britain. What she did was to re-state Labour’s traditional values – compassion, social justice, an economy that serves the interests of everyone and not just a privileged minority, an inclusive approach to what it means to be a New Zealander in the twenty-first century.

    Her government wasn’t perfect – what government is? But she not only restored a sense of what Labour stood for; she moved the agenda forward so that Labour values were seen as newly relevant to New Zealand’s current needs. Most of all, she carried the debate to her opponents and made the case for a left programme.

    What British Labour now needs is a new generation of leaders who have a sense of the political legacy to which they are heirs and who have the courage and conviction to move that legacy forward. The British electorate will want to punish Labour for the failures delivered in the name of that short three-letter word with the capital N; but they will respond to a party that gives them a real choice and that knows what it stands for.

    Bryan Gould

    27 September 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 3 October.

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