Labour's Fault Lines Open Up: As the Political Season Opens and a Conservative Revival Gathers Pace, Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke Offers Heartfelt Advice to the Leadership. Resist the Quick Fix, Face Your Demons and Concentrate on Policies ... or Risk Alienating Crucial Supporters
Clarke, Charles, New Statesman (1996)
The 1981 Labour conference was the most acrimonious in recent history. The Healey-Benn-Silkin deputy leadership contest dominated the months before the conference, led to enduring bitterness and division after, and paved the way for a disastrous election defeat two years later. Nineteen eighty-three was the party's lowest point. Labour learned and changed from that experience and built a modern party able to face the future with confidence. Parliamentary representation increased in 1987 and 1992, leading to the triumphs of 1997 and 2001 and the solid majority of 2005.
That progress defied the commentators' forecasts of near extinction. It was not inevitable. It happened only by taking on the challenges rather than avoiding them, by the exercise of strong leadership and political discipline. Labour learned the lessons of defeats and showed mettle in the face of external attack and internal division. It turned from being a party happy with opposition to one contending for long-term government.
But in order to seek office for the long term, problems have to be honestly acknowledged, achievements celebrated, divisions overcome, alliances constructed, difficult policy problems sorted out, and all in a way that maintains unity.
Labour has to face the fault lines that exist between government and many who supported us in 1997 and 2001. A full discussion about these matters--starting now--is the best way to regain the forward momentum that has delivered success, despite the difficulties, in the past quarter-century.
Of course, for many, opposition can be a more comfortable long-term resting place than government. Manufactured outrage beats the dogged day-to-day grind of reform every time. How else to explain the enduring pull of the Liberal Democrats? Or the persistent group of Labour rebels in parliament who would rather relive the glorious days of confronting Thatcherism than put in the hours needed to think through and cement a progressive social democratic century?
In these circumstances, Labour needs to face its demons, not through the proxies of leadership and deputy leadership contests, real or imagined, imminent or far-off, but by looking seriously at the direction in which the party is travelling. Leadership is not only about personality and style, important though those are. It is about policies, politics and a sense of purpose.
It is difficult to have this discussion while in government, particularly with a media that dwells on policy differences, disguises opinion as news and delivers gossip as a serious exploration of ideas. Politicians are often presented as professional fraudsters and the political process is seen as serial sleights of hand delivered by the avaricious of Westminster.
The discussion has to start with a realistic appraisal of Labour's strengths and weaknesses. Recent polls suggest that Labour's very substantial achievements in government have been discounted or ignored. The efforts of both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to contest the political centre ground, flimsy and insubstantial though they are, have found some public resonance, despite their focus on opposition for the sake of it without clear policy alternatives.
The strengths are routinely understated. This is not surprising from political enemies and the media, but it is surprising from many parts of Labour itself. Since 1997, the achievements, despite the most unpromising of inheritances, are immense. Just a few examples make that case.
Britain has one of the strongest economies in the world, with good growth, low inflation and low unemployment. There is high investment in public services, fairer wages and better benefits for millions, including pensioners and carers. Poverty is being overcome. The contrast with the years before 1997, and even with the last Labour government, is stark.
Public services have improved vastly, whether measured by educational achievement, access to high-quality healthcare, lower levels of crime or increased public transport passenger numbers. …