After defeat - a Labour minister starts his assessment

A Labour minister kicks off his assessment of his party's defeat and replacement by Britain's Coalition government
17 May 2010

David Lammy was the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property in the recent Labour government. He is a contributor to  OurKingdom and sent us this, his immediate assessment of how Labour should respond to its defeat. While it is addressed to Labour members and is already up on his website it is a significant response of wider public interest. It opens what we hope will be a wide-ranging coverage of the future of Labour in opposition as the next generation prepares to take its helm. 

We lost the election and we could be out of power for a generation. What will determine our future now is how deeply we rethink and how quickly we regroup.

The new political reality is this: the new coalition government has done more to modernise and rebrand the Conservative Party than anything since Margaret Thatcher. Cameron is no longer the prisoner of his party’s Right flank. He has the chance to earn the trust of the British people in government.

We must also recognise the significance of our own defeat. We lost nearly one hundred seats. We dropped to third place in a further eighty-one. We lost vast swathes of the south. Nationally it was our worst result since Michael Foot. The Tories need a swing of just 2 per cent more to gain an overall majority. It wasn’t the armageddon that some expected but let’s not kid ourselves: this was a resounding defeat.

There are a number of temptations for our party now. Blame the Lib Dems. Blame our party’s leadership. Blame the electoral system. Blame the electorate. If only it were that simple. Instead we need to ask ourselves some searching questions about who and what we stand for in the twenty-first century. Only then will we earn the right to govern again.

Democratising our party

The first lesson must be that when parties act undemocratically it comes back to haunt them. This is one of the great lessons of New Labour: a project that hung on to a command-and-control style of politics until the last.

A deal in an Islington restaurant in 1994 led to the creation of two different tribes at the top of the party. It damaged our government and we cannot let it haunt us in opposition. In 1998 the same mistakes were made, this time to prevent Ken Livingstone from becoming the Labour candidate for London mayor. He ran as an independent and won.

In 2008 when the party needed renewing we had a coronation rather than an open debate. I was one of the people who was part of that. I share the blame with the other 300 MPs who made the same decision.

Even now some will argue about whether we should have changed the leadership of our party last year. The truth is that no-one really knows. We should have had a leadership election in the first place. Within a year we had the election-that-never-was. We were left with a government that lacked popular legitimacy.

Even in our dying days in government, there was no sense that MPs, let alone party members would be consulted on what kind of deal could be offered to the Liberal Democrats. I supported talks over electoral reform – but we are a democratic party and yet again we forgot that.

This political culture hasn’t just stifled our electoral prospects, it is suffocating our party. Membership has reached rock-bottom. Members feel disempowered. The Parliamentary Labour Party feels its voice is not heard. Our volunteers are wonderful but our candidates are still selected by fewer than a hundred people sitting in a room.

We need to renew our trust in democracy itself. In the leadership election we should introduce a fourth electoral college: the public. One fourth of the votes, alongside members, MPs and Unions, should go to the people who will elect the next government of this country. We should not fear enfranchising them. In the longer-term we need a new democratic culture within our party. We must put the long shadow of the 1980s behind us and give our members a proper voice in their own party. Members should be balloted over policy for our next manifesto, for a start. If we think this is just about leadership, we have big problems.

Beyond managerialism

The election itself proved that we stopped listening not just to our own members but also to the country. Going into the election 80 per cent of the public said that they wanted ‘change’. Our message: more of the same.

We warned people not to risk what they had, but forgot to offer hope of something better. We spoke about the economic recovery but never reform. The implicit message was that we would go back to the status quo. But people wanted more than this. The financial crisis revealed that markets are amoral. People wanted ethics, not just economics. For the campaign we should have run, anyone should watch Gordon Brown’s speech to Citizens UK: passionate, idealistic and reformist. This should have been our message throughout.

Similarly, we allowed Cameron and Clegg to claim the mantle of political reform. This despite the fact the Tories had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a referendum on a new electoral system – which, of course, they will oppose. Why did this happen? Because we had already passed up the opportunity in government. The debate we are now having illustrates how important our government’s modernising mission was – and how damaging it is that it was never seen through.

The tragedy is that we even had some decent policy in the manifesto. A levy on the banks. A cap on interest rates for loans. Electoral reform. Tough, mandatory regulation of lobbyists. But rather than offering a story about Britain’s future, our manifesto read more like a telephone directory. It was a long list of disconnected proposals.

Those of us who have been ministers have swallowed too much of the language and culture of the civil service. We have become too managerialist and technocratic. For Labour's next generation this is the moment of reckoning. We cannot simply offer the public shopping lists of carefully targeted policies. Policy must be underpinned by a wider vision of social justice that people can buy into, whatever their circumstances.

Rebuilding our coalition

With the Lib Dems propping up the Tories there will be a great temptation to simply wait for the coalition to collapse. Some will think we should just oppose Tory cuts and wait for the electorate to return to us with open arms. That would be a colossal mistake. Instead we need to focus on reconnecting with the ideas and values that are authentically Labour.

The precondition for that is to drop some of the old labels that are no guide to our political future. Most obviously ‘New Labour’ has become a meaningless term and should be confined to history. No-one in the party wants to re-write Clause 4. And no-one seriously wants to reheat the policies, the language and the political methods of the last decade. We must move on. Similarly, there can no longer be ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both served our party, but neither is now active in British politics. We must not collapse into old factions and infighting.
The truth is that our party is itself a coalition – of trade unionists, Christian socialists, NGOs and local community activists, human rights campaigners, environmentalists, feminists and anti-racists. We are at our best when we draw from all these traditions. Of course there will be disagreements but renewal must take place in that spirit.

We should revive an ethical socialist tradition that asserts moral limits to markets: the idea that there are some ways of making money that societies should not accept. That means stopping speculators in the city from rigging takeover deals for their own gain; a cap on the interest charged by lenders; tougher licensing of betting shops and casinos; measures to stop the commercialisation of childhood; mutuals and cooperatives that bring together workers and consumers to stand for the common good.

We should revive a labour tradition that speaks to the idea that workers are people who must be respected, not merely commodities to be exploited. That means a place for employees on the boards of companies; policies for a living wage; and taxes that focus more on wealth and less on work.

We should revive a communitarian tradition that speaks a language of obligation as well as entitlement. That means more policy focus on parenting; having something to say about fatherhood and family breakdown; a benefits system that does not entangle people in welfare; a character-building national civic service; and, on migration, clarity that people are joining a community not just a job market.

These lost traditions must sit alongside Labour restoring our claim to a proud place in the liberal tradition, committed to human rights and pluralism. We pioneered this country’s liberalisation on race, gender and gay rights to which others have now adapted, but we must now demonstrate ourselves to be less casual with civil liberties too.

If we do that we can rediscover a vocabulary and set of ideas that we lost. We can begin talking not just about the ‘empowerment’ of the individual to do as we please but also of love, obligation, cooperation and compromise.


All is not lost. We are not in government but we need not enter the electoral wilderness. To avoid this fate we must not fear change.

It is time to start to imagine a new governing project. We need to become a more open, democratic party, not centralised and controlling. We must become a more forward looking party that offers vision and reform rather than defence of the establishment. And above all we will only rebuild our governing coalition by rediscovering our own unique identity. Achieve this and come the next election we can be ready to serve our country again.

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