The Labour government "contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment". This is not a comment about the Blair or Brown years; rather it is a quote from a 1954 New Statesman biographical piece about Clement Attlee and the 1945-1951 Labour government. Amazing as though it may now appear, some contemporary Labour figures of the period were lambasting Attlee's post-war government for its lack of ambition and for it not being "socialist" enough. History repeated itself yesterday when Ed Miliband lambasted the ‘old’ generation for failing to listen and for the ‘company’ it kept. In fairness to the new leader it is an established truth that most Labour members and supporters simultaneously hold opposing requirements. We want our party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic: to be a party that proudly honours its past while it shapes it and the nation's future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but to also support aspiration.
When Labour took office in 1997, Britain was suffering from what Tony Blair later described as a "progressive deficit". What he meant was that Britain was far from being a modern social democratic nation. The constitution was failing, with Scotland and Wales denied proper government and hereditary privilege still the foundation of the House of Lords. Unlike many of our European neighbours, Britain lacked quality childcare and universal nursery provision or schools and hospitals with proper equipment and enough well-paid staff. In the years up to 1997, Britain was a country that had spent billions of pounds keeping able-bodied people idle because of boom and bust, where unemployment often exceeded three million, and where the absence of a national minimum wage condemned millions to poverty pay.
In its first few years in office Labour made significant headway in addressing this progressive deficit. On the constitution, Britain is now a much more pluralist democracy with devolution for Scotland and Wales, Mayors for London and others cities, House of Lords reform, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act. For working people, Labour delivered progressive rights that many other countries took for granted - a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, better maternity and paternity rights, the basic right to join a trade union. For communities and families torn apart by crime, anti-social behaviour, racial intolerance and drugs, Labour established major programmes of inner city regeneration, Sure Start, and additional investment in youth and sport facilities.
The truth is that many of the changes Labour made in 13 years of government - on the constitution, economic policy, the minimum wage and public services - are likely to last. The challenge for Ed’s new generation will be to secure a progressive consensus around the further changes and improvements that need to be made whilst at the same time challenging and exposing the Tory party’s obvious, ideologically driven desire to reduce the size of the state which will result in more charging, less investment, good services for the well-off and second-class services for the rest. However, the real challenge to Ed’s progressive, new generation politics will come not from the Cameron led, Thatcherite dominated Tory party but from the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist within the ranks of his own movement. The new generation politics needs to frame political debate in terms of progress versus conservatism and the world not in terms of right and left, but right and wrong. Throughout his superbly judged campaign Ed spoke about how all too often political debate seems irrelevant to the reality of ordinary peoples’ lives. He understands that too many voters feel that politics is too polarised, that parties and politicians portray their opponents as either pro-business or pro-unions, pro-growth or pro-environment, for civil liberties or against them, as progressives or dinosaurs.
Ed needs to use the coming weeks and months to rethink the direction and the very purpose of our party. History shows that the public trusts leaders who have the courage to lead. It is surely no coincidence that, in recent history, when governments have acted boldly on issues as varied as debt cancellation, the introduction of the congestion charge or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind it. If Labour is to win next time round then its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action.
The politics of optimism, of hope, worked for Obama and touched a chord with the mainstream in the US. Politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution can be a powerful force for change. What Ed signalled yesterday was that it is time for the labour party to address its own progressive deficit, to be clear about who we are, who we were and who we want to become.