Douglas Alexander: 'We have to offer a better tomorrow, not a better yesterday'

After 13 years in a ruling party, the shadow Foreign Secretary hates life in opposition. If Labour is to win next time, he tells Matt Chorley, it must do more than just kick the Lib Dems

Fifty years ago, John F Kennedy announced his intention to put a man on the moon within a decade. It was an extraordinarily bold claim, but one that captured the sense of hope, imagination and limitless ambition which is the hallmark of the great American dream. If Ed Miliband were to make a similar boast, he would be laughed out of town.

Douglas Alexander raises the JFK story to insist Labour's best hope of defying history – and regaining power after just one parliament in opposition – depends on Miliband inspiring Britain with a compelling vision of how the country can prosper.

"Our challenge is to offer a politics of national purpose that gives people confidence about Britain's future," he says. "Ironically, the yearning for optimism is even stronger because of the pessimism and anxiety people feel today, both about the condition of Britain and about the cuts and difficulties that are to come."

The 43-year-old Scot helped to run the Labour leadership campaign for Ed's brother, David, but since September has been a vital part of the new leader's team, while determinedly spelling out where the party went wrong and the scale of the task ahead.

Now shadow Foreign Secretary, Alexander is adamant that HM's Official Opposition cannot spend the next four years just pointing at every government gaffe and spending cut and remarking how awful it is: "Britain is not an angry sect; it's a broad, modern and often generous population. It seems part of the skill of opposition is to offer criticism that enhances and doesn't diminish your credibility. Opposition shouldn't be a holiday from responsibility."

Labour did not lose last year because one or two of its policies were unpopular. Something fundamental changed which meant, no matter what the party said, huge swaths of the electorate did not want to listen.

"One of the reasons we lost the last election is that when we talked about fairness too many people thought we were talking about somebody else. It's not just a question of can you secure strong poll numbers – welcome though it is that we are ahead in the polls – it's can you make people comfortable again with the idea of living in Labour Britain?"

This is a huge task. In 2010, Labour polled just 29 per cent of the popular vote. In elections earlier this month, they were beaten by the Tories in the number of votes cast, were stunned by the SNP sweeping to power in Scotland with an overall majority, failed to take control in Wales and won 800 council seats without making significant progress in the southern swing seats that decide general elections. Scotland, in particular, was a "very bad result", in a large part due to a policy debate "conducted on an apparently something-for-nothing basis". Alex Salmond won "more by an account of Scotland's future than by an account of his record in office". Alexander does not buy into the idea that Labour's Scottish parliamentary misfortune stems from the fact the party's big hitters all went to Westminster. But he believes more must be done to ensure "that some of the talent that's within our party in the future goes to Holyrood".

Meanwhile, does anyone in the Labour Party actually know how to win back those crucial English swing seats, such as Chatham, Lincoln or Worcester, that stopped listening altogether? "It's a work in progress. We have taken some steps, but it is a long journey. And I think resolution and humility would be my watchwords rather than complacency and certainty. Ed's made a good start."

A series of policy reviews have begun, but in an era of coalition politics – when battles between Tories and Lib Dems are more newsworthy than anything Labour might have to say – Alexander believes the time is right for quiet yet fundamental reform of the party. "At this stage of the parliament, it seems to me the key question is: are those processes under way that means when the lighthouse beam comes back round on to Labour we've done the work?"

Much of the focus of Labour's attack on the coalition, and cuts in particular, has been about their impact on particular groups – the poor, the young, the old, the disabled. Most notably, Miliband has spoken of his concern for the "squeezed middle". But Alexander believes that, come the next election, the defining question will not be on the politics of distribution but on the politics of production – how does Britain pay its way in the world?

The greatest market failure in 60 years has paradoxically led to the electoral ascendancy of the centre right. While the West is struggling to emerge from the downturn, the Chinese and Indian economies last year both grew in double digits. "One of the generational stories of our time is the rise of Asia, and these economies have come out of the global financial crisis turbo-charged and on steroids."

He recently travelled to Tunisia, sceptical about claims made for the role of social media in fuelling the revolt. But when a young man in Tunis explained to him how changing their profile pictures on Facebook to their national flag emboldened users to speak out, Alexander was persuaded it had been "fundamental to liberating confidence in the population". "The birth of the Arab spring will be even more decisive to this moment in history than the death of Osama bin Laden."

Politicians including himself have been left "scrambling for appropriate analogies". Is what is happening similar to the liberation of eastern Europe in 1989 or the 1979 Tehran revolution? "My sense is these are genuinely seismic events that speak to a deep yearning for human dignity and a better life, and I think that moment needs to be seized."

For many in the Labour Party, including some of his shadow cabinet colleagues, the past few months have been an exercise in kicking the Liberal Democrats – and Nick Clegg in particular. Alexander is not impressed. "My mantra on this is: it's fun to beat the Lib Dems, but it's important to beat the Conservatives."

He believes that despite all the talk of plural politics, the reverse is happening. In England, it is a battle between Labour and the Tories; in Scotland, a stand-off with the SNP. "While the demise of the Liberal Democrats is influential, it will not be decisive in determining the outcome of the next general election. The risk is that people think: 'OK, the Conservatives are our main opponents, so let's shout louder at the Conservatives'."

Instead they should be wooing Tory voters. As a Blairite, Alexander is adamant that only by appealing to every part of the country – in particular, the middle classes, as New Labour did – can the party win an election again. After serving as a minister under Blair and Brown, he admits to "loathing" opposition. He remains in politics only because he believes Labour can come back with an upbeat message for the future. There was a time when David Cameron tried to embrace the politics of optimism. "What was it he said? 'Let sunshine win the day'? That seems a long time ago," Alexander jokes, as rain batters the window of his Commons office. "He is offering a pretty bleak, pretty diminished view of austerity Britain. That is our opportunity."

On Tuesday, Alexander joined Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman at Buckingham Palace to meet Barack Obama. Clearly still buzzing, Alexander reveals that a 20-minute meeting was scheduled but it overran to 40.

"We talked about how to frame and secure a progressive future in tough economic times: how do you give people the prospect of a better life, productive work, more opportunities amid the challenges facing the economies of Britain and America?"

Alexander acknowledges that Britain and America must have a strong relationship "whether you have got a Republican in the White House or a Conservative in Downing Street". But he admits that "when the Democrats are in power in the White House, it feels like our crowd".

In his Westminster Hall speech, Obama quoted Churchill as a symbol of the "special relationship". But Alexander believes Clement Attlee's shock defeat of Britain's great wartime PM holds the key to Labour's future success. The party's 1945 manifesto – Let Us Face the Future – presented it as the party best placed to rebuild Britain after the second world war. Labour wins, Alexander says, only by offering "a better tomorrow and not a better yesterday".

Curriculum vitae

1967 Born in Glasgow to Douglas, a Church of Scotland minister, and Joyce, a doctor. His older sister, Wendy, was an MSP until 2008. Attends Bishopton primary school, Renfrewshire, and Park Mains high school, Erskine. Member of the 1st Bishopton Company of the Boys Brigade, playing bugle in the band.

1982 Still at school, joins Labour Party.

1984 Wins scholarship to United World College of the Pacific near Vancouver.

1986 Studies politics and modern history at Edinburgh University. Chairs the University Labour Club.

1988 Attends the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for a year. Press steward for Michael Dukakis, the Democrat presidential hopeful.

1990 Researcher and speechwriter for Gordon Brown. Returns to Edinburgh to train as a solicitor.

1995 Fails to win the Perth & Kinross by-election and is defeated in the 1997 general election, but switches to Paisley South in a by-election later the same year and wins.

2000 Marries Jacqueline Christian, a PR executive. They now have two children: Douglas and Eve.

2001 Becomes youngest minister – in charge of e-commerce at the Department of Trade and Industry.

2005 Secretary of State for Transport, then Scotland.

2007 Secretary. of State for International Development.

2010 Masterminds David Miliband's failed bid for Labour leadership.

2011 Shadow Foreign Secretary in Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet reshuffle.

Chris Stevenson

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