Coming back from a defeat of this magnitude will be very, very difficult but not impossible. Since the 1920s the story of the Labour movement goes something like this: Labour 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 that Labour has often been far better at defeating itself than the Tories have ever been. 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. The lessons of defeat are always the same. Values unrelated to modern reality are not just electorally hopeless, the values themselves become devalued.
What works? By successfully occupying the centre ground, by modernising and reaching out beyond its own activists Labour under Tony Blair 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 has understood all of this and it is why he has been busy in attempting (with, as the 2015 results indicate, some considerable success) to re-brand and re-position today’s Tory party. In 2005 the Conservatives woke up to the fact that in order to be taken seriously they needed to be seen as the future, to be heralded as the bearers of hope and the deliverers of change.
There will be two Labour trains departing the tracks in the next few weeks. 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 the SNP or a re-energised 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 past achievements. Telling the electorate that things were much better pre-2010 is the political equivalent of living in the past. We have to forget the polls, they as relevant as last year's weather forecast for tomorrow's weather. Its five years until the next election and the first rule of politics: there are no rules.
Labour has won in the past not because it surrendered its values but because it had the courage to be true to them. The British people will lose faith in us only if first we lose faith in ourselves.