The piece below also appears on the Progress website.
To no one’s real surprise Labour has been given a real kicking in the Crewe by-election. The key question that Labour MPs, members and supporters will be asking this morning is simple: where exactly do we go from here? The task facing Gordon Brown is a monumental one. If he is to survive then he will need to define his vision for Britain with far more clarity and passion. This will mean leading public opinion, rather than merely following it. Gordon Brown is not stupid and he more than anyone understands how trust and integrity matter in modern politics. He understands how long they take to build up and, particularly since the local elections and the Crewe fiasco, he is all too aware of how quickly they can evaporate.
Historically it is a fact that rather than Labour has been far better at defeating itself than the Tories have, the recent 10p tax fiasco is clear evidence of this. One of Gordon Brown’s major difficulties is that after an unprecedented eleven straight years in power many of Labour’s own members and supporters want him to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic; to be a leader that proudly honours the party’s 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 and encourage aspiration. Since the war 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.
Since becoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his team of advisers have been seeking to trade on a reputation for economic competence. The problem with this strategy is that history also shows that centre-left governments invariably have to do more than this. Labour governments need to persuade people that there is a task for government, that collective endeavour really is a strength as well as being a virtue. For this reason alone the best prospects of future success for Labour lie not in defending the status quo of what is still a highly unequal Britain, rather it is in legislating to help rid our nation of some ugly realities such as child poverty, endemic inequalities in both health and education and in clearly articulating why these areas warrant state action.
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 clearly understands all of this and it is why he has been busy in attempting – with some considerable success - to re-brand and re-position today’s Tory party. The Conservatives are acutely aware 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 the deliverers of change. Such a move also provides an opportunity for the Labour party because it will take Cameron and his party into unchartered waters. The history of the Tory party is centred on the core belief that government and politics can't actually change people’s lives all that much. Tory philosophy has long rejected any talk about the strength and virtue of common endeavour or about the need to ensure that wealth and opportunity are placed in the hands of the many not the few.
The challenge facing the post-Blair, Gordon Brown led government is to make more of its progressive agenda irreversible; changes that can’t be rolled back by a future right-wing Tory government that wanted to dismantle much of what has been achieved. We know that from the 1960s where the Labour government failed to see through ‘In Place of Strife’ and paved the way for the Thatcher revolution. If we fail to continue with the reform of public services then the Tories could soon be back in power hell-bent on demolishing the very ethos on which they were built – with more charging, less investment, good services just for the well-off, second class services for the rest. Labour’s meltdown at the local elections and the defeat in Crewe has damaged Gordon Brown and will no doubt prompt a great deal of soul searching (and recriminations) over the coming days and weeks.
Metaphorically speaking there will be two Labour trains departing from Crewe this weekend, one will be taking the difficult, but ultimately rewarding, track that leads to renewal whilst the other will be seeking to reverse its way from the platform along the track that is signposted ‘political wilderness.’ This is why the real challenge to the continuation of the pursuit of a progressive political 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 urgently set about renewing itself, its message and its organisation. A renewed party needs to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it also needs to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. Ambition, hope and aspiration are far more appealing than a constant reciting of the achievements of the past ten years - telling the electorate that things are much better than they were in 1997 is the political equivalent of living in the past.
So if a fourth term is to be achieved Labour must continue with its progressive reform package and stop fretting about the opinion polls and how often Gordon Brown smiles. But above all else it must not (as it has so often done in the past) end up defeating itself.