The history of Labour Governments goes something like this: supporters are near euphoric when victory is achieved there is then a period of hard slog as the party faces up to the harsh responsibilities of being in government. The party then accuses the leadership of betrayal and the leadership accuses the party of ingratitude. Supporters then become disillusioned which leads to defeat at the polls. We then experience a long period of Tory Government before the next outbreak of euphoria and so on and so forth.
The truth is Labour has been far better at defeating itself than the Tories have ever been. Even today, after an unprecedented decade in power many of Labour’s own members want it to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic; to be a party that proudly honours its past whilst not neglecting to shape both its and the nation’s future; to champion the state whilst being part of the market; to tackle poverty but also support aspiration.
Gordon Brown stood for the leadership of the Labour party on a platform that argued that the renewal that was undertaken in order to gain power needed to be repeated if Labour was to keep power. The fact is that by successfully occupying the centre ground, by modernising and reaching out beyond its own activists Labour ended up turning the Tories into a replica of what it used to be itself – a party with a narrow base, a party obsessed about the wrong things and a party seen as old fashioned and out of touch. David Cameron understands all of this and it is why he is busily attempting to re-brand and re-position today’s Tory party. The Conservatives have woken up to the fact that in order to be taken seriously they will need to be seen as the party of the future, to be heralded as the bearers of hope and deliverers of change. The problem for Cameron and his team is that the promotion of such a message takes the Tories into unchartered waters. Why? Because the history of the Tory party is centred on the core belief that politics can't change people’s lives. Can you ever imagine a time when a future Tory manifesto included a passage about the strength of our common endeavour or about ensuring wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few? Me neither.
The real challenge to a continued progressive agenda comes not from a resurgent Tory party but from the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist within the Labour party itself. If Labour is to secure an unprecedented fourth term then it must set about renewing itself, its message and its organisation. As Ivan Lewis pointed out last week a renewed party needs to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it also needs to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. Telling the electorate that things are much better than they were in 1997 simply does not cut any mustard anymore (in fact it hasn’t done for several years). In fairness most objective commentators agree that things are better today than they were ten or so years ago whilst pointing out - fairly in my view - that change in some areas has been painfully slow. The forces of conservatism are so deeply embedded in our public services that it should have come as no surprise that changing the culture of our hospitals and schools was going to be bloody. For too long public services were, and to some extent still remain, deeply unequal as league and performance tables in the NHS and education have shown and for too long the affluent and the well educated have been able to buy their way out of failing or inadequate provision - a situation the Tories ‘opting out’ reforms of the 1980s encouraged. To be fair the holy grail of achieving both equity and excellence in public services is within touching distance in some areas. In England and Wales the number of heart operations each year has risen by over 30 per cent since 1997 - no patient is now waiting more than nine months for heart surgery. Over 98 per cent of patients referred by their GP with suspected cancer are now seen within two weeks, while 96 per cent of patients receive their treatment within a month’s diagnosis of breast cancer. In schools, we have the best primary tests, GCSE and A-Level results ever. Almost no infants are now in class sizes of more than 30 and 9,000 schools have new classrooms and facilities. More than 800 failing schools in England have been removed from special measures and turned around.This is good stuff and the public wants to see more. The reality, however, is that the improvements we have necessarily seen in the past few years are quick-fix and easy-win in nature. Real, transformational and long lasting change will take much longer. The battle (and it is a battle) to transform our public services is not yet won. Public services in Britain are in the process of being revived but there are still some Labour MPs, councillors and members who wish not revival but reversal. After the 2005 election Tony Blair committed a third term Labour government to delivering further improvements in our public services; a Brown-led government would be wise to review this decision - not because it is the wrong direction in which to proceed, but because it is a four, possibly five-term objective.
So if a fourth term is to be achieved Labour must continue with its progressive reform package, stop fretting about the opinion polls and above all not end up (as so often it has in the past) defeating itself!