By 2010, after thirteen long years of power, Labour wasn't ready for a real conversation about its time in office. The party was in mourning of having finally lost the power it had so desperately craved. But the real tragedy is that Labour had already resigned itself to defeat by mid-2008. Only a stirring performance from Peter Mandelson in the dying days of the 1997-2010 administration ever gave any sense of hope that it would win that historic fourth term. But now, five years on, after another crushing loss, Labour faces a pivotal choice from which it cannot duck. The party must move on from New Labour - but too many seem too ready to return to the Old Labour prophecy; to be an eternal opposition.
New Labour is dead
If people believed the tough times were being in government, they are wrong
As someone who joined the party with the accession of Gordon Brown in 2007, I honestly, and naively, believed that the tough times for Labour were being in government. Many others talked about not being able to ‘defend the indefensible’. Others had given up and shifted to hearty alternatives, whether left, right or centre. Jumping ship to the Liberals, the Greens or TUSC, there was a drive to be 'purer' - to find a more progressive home. With ten years of power weighing heavy, perhaps this was unavoidable - but it was simply naval-gazing and wrong. The truth is the tough times were quite clearly still ahead. The destruction brought onto our youth and social services five years into a Conservative-led government is just one striking reminder of what happens when Labour isn't in power. Mindless decisions, with the result nothing short of destroying the futures and chances of millions of people growing up or growing old in Britain today.
But in the aftermath of the 2010 general election when voters, not just activists, had deserted the party - Labour's response missed the mark.
It is no surprise that many in Labour derided the Liberal Democrats for ‘selling out’ by joining government after that election. After years of their left wing pandering and name calling people were absolutely entitled to look the Liberal's so-called 'purity' and laugh as it faded. I don’t blame activists, or myself, for doing so, it was a gruelling campaign - but to do so was a clear, strategic mistake none the less - and a fatal one at that. Because it is now, five years on, with the Liberal Democrats wiped out, that Labour finds itself in the midst of an internal debate about power and the difference a Labour government makes to real people, not just party members. So-called 'centrists' in the party are now facing the seemingly impossible task of asking people to compromise, having spent five years jeering at the Liberals making a strikingly similar argument; that Clegg and his ministers did clearly have a visible effect on Tory plans. Power may be hard, but surely it is preferable to achieving nothing?
People ditched Labour for the purity of the left and the sanity of the right
Even as a self-defined Brownite, I accept that this future was obvious to predict. The renewal so badly craved at the end of the New Labour years was never going to be delivered by a man who ascended to power without challenge. And that fatal mistake - not to debate the character of leadership in 2007 - led Labour, attempting to cling to power, to offer a candidate to that electorate that they didn't get and to give the Conservatives room to go into the 2010 general election as the more liberal choice for Britain.
The criticism that New Labour had become too centrist, had too often showed little regard or concern for civil liberties and since the economic crisis could not decide whether it had been too conservative with the public finances or had not significantly changed the way the economy worked enough - was right. But Iraq for example, was just one example of an issue that should have been dealt with in 2005. If the country could bring itself to vote for Tony Blair, the party should have put the squabbles to rest. But yet, the rumblings continued and by 2010 had ensured the issue was toxic within the party – without necessarily being so in the country. Just like the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in the United States, in the 2010 leadership election the war became a proxy for trust and authenticity and values in the party. This in itself was not solely Ed Miliband’s fault. But coupled with the fact that those on the left continually sought to undermine the record and achievements of the New Labour government, Labour would be lulled into a state of misjudgement.
Ed Miliband would be crowned to bring 'change' to the party - but Labour had forgotten that the leadership is the only fundamental way it communicates to voters, and if you trash your own record, people will be confused about what you stand for.
Within the first year of his leadership, Miliband had all but forgot his role to bring renewal to New Labour and its mission - and instead decided to lump Labour in with the left and ensure the party ran away from New Labour as quickly as it could. At almost every turn, Miliband pitched himself against the 1997-2010 government, as opposed to the Conservatives. On these tests alone, his leadership was a disappointment to those who genuinely supported him as the renewal candidate and I don’t understand why so many remained so loyal for so long. Ed deserted the party in pursuit of a crusade of self-belief for the past five years, with the result again being entirely obvious - another loss.
These lost five years saw the debate about New Labour rumble on, and the opportunity of reform lost for good. When Labour should have been ready to lead our country, it resigned itself to 'keeping the party together' at the expense of the nation. Those who attempted to say we were going the wrong way were shut down and told they were helping the Tories. Sound familiar?
It is through this vacuum that the soft left has been able to multiply and grow and allow themselves to create a false reality of a ‘conspiracy’ against Labour. Its own disappointment in the inability of Miliband’s leadership to cut through became an inevitable crusade against business and the media for the left. Ever the underdogs, always destined to lose, it is the Tories who would always win. It is this complete failure to renew that the party can’t bring itself to come to terms with, because it was so painfully preventable.
None of these candidates are likely to win back power
To win power again, Labour needs to present a coherent argument to the public. But it cannot do that until it answers the fundamental question of what the party's view of ‘that’ New Labour government is.
Has Labour now apologised enough for its time in office? The left are all over the place in attempting to answer this question. They believe that ‘elements’ of the new Labour government were good. You now hear Owen Jones and even Jeremy Corbyn seek to claim these and then lump in the ‘wrong’ under the auspices of 'Blairism'. But it is now time for the left to realise that when your view of the Labour government is wholly negative, and that we did ‘too much’ wrong, that there is ‘too much’ beyond the pale then you must reconcile yourself with the fact that there will never be a Labour government that you will be able to bring yourself to terms with. None in history, none in the future. We must be very clear; there is no progressive majority and it is wrong to believe the country would ever elect a government so pure that you could believe in it. There will be no socialist revolution through the people.
To be an eternal opposition is therefore the consequence and this is now what many are happy for Labour to choose.
I accept there are those on the left who honestly believe you can win from their side of the net. But even if we were to accept that the country would allow Labour to win there, you therefore must accept that the debate required to get there is one that is now nearly eight years overdue. However, instead of an honest assessment of how to win, even from the left, there is a willingness to close down debate, crush decanters, brief against your ‘enemies', surround yourself with only those who are true believers and now resort to calling 'Blairism' itself a ‘virus’. This paranoia should be over the ability of the Conservative party to rebuild itself and re-position itself as a centrist party under a new leader, not whether Tony Blair was right to get the Labour Party winning again a decade or more ago.
At every turn since Blair left office it has been said to win back the country Labour needs to move left. It was said that the handover to Brown would mean keeping the keys to power – it didn’t. It was then with the election of Miliband that they declared they had their party back – they did not. And now it is Jeremy Corbyn. But how many more times do we need to see the same result by giving the wrong answer to the question?
Just because someone sticks their hand up, you don’t follow them off a cliff
Labour has required renewal for a long time, but the party is now out of time and out of turns and in a dead end with no way out.
There can now be no ‘renewal’ of the New Labour brand and ethos. Quite frankly it has been dragged through the mud for far too long and it’s time to cut the losses and run. New Labour became a soap opera, then it was killed by the perceived move to the left, the financial crisis, lack of talent to continue its philosophy, a failure to commit to renewal and a fatal paranoia. Nobody came to its rescue and then it was battered over the head for the past five years despite the fact it was already dead.
It is now over and time for something new.
There is therefore only one course.
To win again Labour must look forward, not back.
It is essential that Labour looks at the challenges the country, not the party, faces to find an articulation of policy that is right for this time, not 2010, led by someone genuinely new.
Our politics is in a crisis. Traditional power is splintering and nationalism is on the rise. The country is crying out for authentic leaders who understand life today and have real experiences of it and an understanding of others. They want to see a sense of purpose from someone who can articulate what they believe and where the country should go. They also require a real vision of opportunity and hope - understanding that people want to have control over their own lives and want a smart government that empowers them rather than controls them.
Labour is kidding itself if it honestly believes Jeremy Corbyn is the answer to this demand.
Yet again, Labour is looking to the wrong people to lead it and the country will pay the price. Whilst nobody else has really stepped up, it is clear that the party and our country will not be best served by following anyone who just puts their hand up and leads us off a cliff.
New Labour is dead. But in the next few weeks the party is either going to choose to bury itself with it, try and resuscitate it in vain, keep battering it even though it is dead or triangulate around it.
Just as we cannot allow history to repeat itself, we cannot replay the battles of the past.
It's time to leave the toxic remnants of both New and Old Labour behind, but the party is now on the edge of a precipice and just weeks from an even more desperate future.
For those in the centre who are now saying that you give the far left a go and let them fail on their own terms are taking a giant gamble that you will be able to dig your way back out when they lose.
I’m not so sure you'll be able to.