Whither Labour now: an open letter to The Leader
Decisions about what kind of opposition Labour is going to be obviously can’t wait until the leadership elections in the autumn: it falls to you to set the tone and issue the guidance as soon as you possibly can. I was pretty horrified to see Alan Johnson on television today attacking, in his amiable way, the coalition government’s decision to “Adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database”, and trying to defend the Labour government’s policy on this touchy subject. I suggest that this kind of thing, however understandable, is the worst possible start to Labour’s stint in opposition. Many of the policies set out in the coalition agreement which now constitutes the basis of the new government’s programme, especially the section on civil liberties, are skilfully chosen, not just to look liberal and enlightened, but actually to represent real improvements on Labour’s legacy, even or especially when they propose to reverse or repeal some of the more illiberal of the measures left to us by the Blair era. Many of us who are loyal but worried members of the Labour Party, or just instinctive supporters of it, have been dismayed by some of the illiberal excesses of Labour’s record — and I don’t just mean Iraq. The 2010 election defeat gives the party the opportunity to make a fresh start, which must include acknowledging past mistakes, however painful that might be for those who were chiefly responsible for making them; or if not acknowledging them, at least not trying any more to justify or defend them. It will send the right message if you enthusiastically support government measures to correct or reverse past mistakes, and better still if you make your own proposals for more enlightened policies, even or especially when they conflict with those of the past. There’s plenty in Labour’s record in government to boast about; as for the authoritarian and belligerent excesses, the less said now, the better.
I would like respectfully to offer you two golden rules that should govern the behaviour of the Labour Party in opposition, in and out of parliament:
(1) Be a responsible and constructive opposition, actively cooperating whenever possible, opposing only when absolutely necessary. Concentrate on showing that you’re an enlightened and above all a different government in waiting, not merely a party hell-bent on opposing whatever the government does; and
(2) Radically overhaul every aspect of the late Labour government’s policies, brutally slaughtering sacred cows, and boldly thinking the hitherto unthinkable. In the words of Danton: De l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace! Avoid like the Black Death any impression that if and when Labour is re-elected you will simply take up where the Blair and Brown governments left off. If that’s how it looks, you won’t be returned to the government benches for a generation, and you won’t deserve to be.
The first of these rules will require a degree of restraint, and behaviour often contrary to every tribal Labour instinct, which won’t come easily to those accustomed to the no-holds-barred bare-fisted combat tradition of adversarial British politics. But it’s essential to recognise that ordinary decent people detest the kind of yah-boo order-paper-waving point-scoring politics of prime minister’s questions, and yearn for a government and opposition that behave like grown-ups, especially at a time of national crisis, with the nation’s finances in ruins and the threat of a double-dip recession and yet more massive unemployment hanging over us. The spectacle of both government and opposition back benches baying and screaming at each other, in fits of bogus merriment or of equally fabricated indignation, does almost as much harm to the standing of politics and politicians in people’s minds as the scandal over MPs’ expenses. Even when the government’s economic and financial policies seem to us misguided, inferior to ours, unlikely to succeed, please remember that they have a mandate to pursue them, and it’s no part of an opposition’s right or duty to try to prevent them from working. None of us, least of all the poor, the vulnerable, the homeless and the unemployed, has a stake in the government’s failure. If Labour in opposition is seen to have contributed to failure, we shan’t soon be forgiven. Explain how things could and should be done differently, more fairly, but then work hard and uncomplainingly to make the elected government’s policies succeed.
Exercising restraint and practising grown-up politics in opposition will call for the kind of discipline that won’t come easily to some of your Labour colleagues, especially those with hearts of gold on the wilder back-bench shores of militancy, even with a small m. There’ll be ample provocation from the government side to hit back in kind when they bellow their cheap shots about the frivolous over-spending of Labour’s last days in office, the skeletons they claim to have found in every ministerial cupboard, and stuff like that (some of it probably well founded: much not). We know from the pre-election style of Cameron, Osborne, Hague, Theresa May, Fox and Lansley and other Tory luminaries, even some of the Tory-inclined LibDems, how unscrupulously partisan they’re going to be. They’ll taunt you with attacks on Labour’s record in government, and some of the attacks will hit home. Don’t respond in kind; don’t try to defend and justify every last policy and action of Labour in office. Persist in asking sober questions that genuinely seek information. Enforce on your colleagues, especially those on the front bench, the rigid rule: never ask a question to which you already know the answer. Offer the government your support when they deserve it. Indicate willingness to take part in consultations with ministers as policies on great national issues are evolving, and promise not to exploit or abuse your participation in consultations if your offer is accepted. Show that you are more serious, courteous and conscious of the national interest, as distinct from party advantage, than the cheapskate Tories in their triumphalist euphoria.
Implicit in this is that Labour in opposition needs to acknowledge, explicitly and often, that harsh and painful measures to restore the country’s finances were always going to be inevitable, whichever party or combination of parties won the election. Some cuts in public services are bound to figure in the menu and the living standards of many people are bound to suffer. There will be room for legitimate but sober argument about the fair and proper balance between increased taxes and reduced government spending; about how best to protect the most vulnerable in society from the worst effects of the measures that will have to be taken; and about ways to reconcile continued government support for the nascent recovery from recession with the need to demonstrate — as much to our own public opinion as to the fickle and febrile markets — a real determination to put the country’s affairs in order with a minimum of delay. But that can’t and mustn’t mean opposing everything the government does for the sake of opposing. The electorate will harshly punish a Labour opposition which can plausibly be portrayed as obstructing the measures that sensible people of all political persuasions recognise as necessary and unavoidable. Similarly, seizing every opportunity to exploit and exaggerate frictions within the governing coalition will harm Labour much more than it will harm the coalition. Leave that to the harlots of the media.
You will face especially difficult choices when the government’s axe begins to fall on the public service and the services that it provides. There will be protest marches, demos, work-to-rule, probably strikes. Labour’s instinct, especially in opposition, will be to support the protests and the strikes, almost regardless of the merits of each case. But in a situation where almost every section of British society is going to have to bear some of the burden of restoring the nation’s finances, and most sections of society are naturally going to come out in the streets to defend their own sectional interests, the Loyal Opposition simply won’t be able to give indiscriminate support to every demo and every strike, without giving the fatal impression of reckless ideology-driven irresponsibility — which will rightly be taken by many as evidence that Labour is unfit to return to office. How you and your colleagues behave in these first rather feverish weeks and months of opposition will set the scene for how Labour is seen and judged for the rest of this parliament.
And finally, a highly sensitive point: you simply can’t afford to allow Labour’s front bench to look like a seamless continuation of the last one. Those few who watched the opening of the new parliament on television will have flinched at the spectacle of Jack Straw there on the bench beside you, nodding and grinning as smugly as ever, as if he personally was quite untainted by his association with all the previous government’s failures and excesses. We flinched again hearing the misguided voice, yet again, of David Blunkett, of all people. Whoever selected him to speak on this iconic occasion? It’s time for the Straws and the Blunketts and most of the other tarnished stars of “New” Labour — and please let’s never hear that always tawdry term used again — to retire gracefully to obscurity on the back benches, to be replaced by fresh faces whose freedom won’t be circumscribed by a commitment to the unbending defence of past disasters.
All this adds up to a tall order, especially for a caretaker leader. But you enjoy the unchallengeable legitimacy of having been elected by all wings of the party to your present position. You enjoy, and deserve, huge goodwill, respect and support. Insist that the candidates for the leadership use their influence to ensure compliance. As long as you lead the opposition, most of your Labour colleagues will accept your leadership and follow the course you set. The great majority of Labour’s millions of supporters out here in the country are silently cheering you on. Don’t give in to the taunts of the government benches or the vicious slanders of the right-wing press: maintain a statesmanlike commitment to the national good. And when your few swivel-eyed militant knee-jerk Tory-bashers get out of line, smack ’em down! There’s no-one, but no-one, on the opposition benches better placed than you to bring it off.
I’m going to write to you again later about the second of my proposed Golden Rules. This is more than enough to be going on with. And it’s not meant to be advice — that would indeed be an impertinence on my part. It’s an appeal; a desperate, not very optimistic appeal.