Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Coming to terms with defeat

Sunny Hundal has an interesting piece up at the Guardian. Yes, I was surprised too. It's not immune, however, to a little bit of wishful thinking.

It took the Conservatives more than a decade after 1997 to seriously start asking why no one would re-elect them. Labourites, by contrast, aren't willing to wait that long.

The idea that the Tories weren't asking themselves why they were electorally unpopular until 2007 is a bit of a stretch - they did nothing but ask themselves that right from the moment they were turfed unceremoniously out of office. The problem was that having identified the problem quite early on (that people didn't like them, essentially), and that the solution was to 'modernise' the party's image and win it back a hearing, they weren't able to do it. Hague got cold feet when the polls refused to move and ended up trying to consolidate the party base. IDS tried too, but got swamped by his general uselessness. Howard only became leader as the next election loomed, so concentrated more or less entirely on making the party less of a shambles. It was only with Cameron in 2005 that the original answer to the original question was actually put into effect.

Labour's problem is slightly different to the Tories' old one. Basically, it's not that we don't like them, it's that we don't trust them. Sunny identifies the keystone of New Labour - high tax revenues from a fizzy property market and dominant financial sector could be used to pay for better public services - and notes that this equation doesn't work any more. The problem, as he sees it, is that Labour haven't yet come up with a bolder vision of the future.

Well, that's a problem to be sure. But there's a greater one. While the ideological heft of New Labour could be summed up by the equation above, its electability was based on a simpler one - economic competence and social empathy. With the Iron Chancellor demonstrating prudence in No.11, and Tony lavishing the fruits of that prudence on schools'n'hospitals, New Labour were fearsomely hard to beat. But Labour's lasting legacy will be the economic crash - even Iraq will be a footnote.

It is this that Labour need to address - last time they were in power they ruined the public finances, why should we give them another chance? That's a very straightforward question, and it needs a good answer. Until Labour have thought of one (and it's hard to see how they can with Ed Balls as part of the answer) they're going to stay in the wilderness.

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