Ed Balls: We must listen and connect

We cannot just regroup and assume that this coalition will fall apart quickly

The last 10 days have turned things upside down. We lost the election – but no other party won decisively. Many good MPs and candidates failed to win their seats – but we had some great results, especially in local government. We talked to the Liberal Democrats, thinking they were a progressive party – and then they jumped into bed with the Tories.

And we watched an era of Labour politics come to a close as Gordon and Sarah Brown walked with dignity down Downing Street for the last time with their two young sons. John and Fraser will grow up proud of what their dad achieved.

So we are still coming to terms with what this deeply unprincipled Tory-Lib Dem coalition means for our politics. And now there's a Labour leadership election too – the rollercoaster continues.

This leadership contest is a great opportunity for Labour. Ironically, the Liberals Democrats, by putting power before principle, have re-energised and united our party. Membership is surging. My local party in Morley and Outwood decided that the right response was to hold a street stall on Saturday and go out canvassing this Sunday.

But the leadership election is also a moment of great danger. We cannot just regroup and assume that this coalition will fall apart quickly. And we cannot assume that we would necessarily benefit if the Tories and Lib Dems split.

The fact is that we lost almost 100 seats. And a leadership election in which we talk to ourselves in party meetings and seminars and then tell the country what we have decided is the route to stagnation and further defeat.

So it is not just party meetings we need but public meetings too. We must start with what the country is telling us in marginal seats across the country – from Dorset and Stevenage to Sherwood and Warrington.

And it's a tough message. I heard it myself in Morley and Outwood, where in the face of a Lord Ashcroft-funded Tory onslaught we had to fight even harder for every vote and talk to tens of thousands of people.

People knew we had done great things – transforming our schools and hospitals, the national minimum wage, Sure Start children's centres and the pension credit. They acknowledged that Gordon and Alistair did a great job on getting us through the global recession.

But they felt we had stopped listening. It wasn't enough to say "Don't vote Tory" and "Don't risk the recovery" when we had not done enough to prove that we were on people's side. Time after time, "undecided" voters said to me: "You've lost touch with us." They just did not believe we were hearing their concerns on immigration, welfare, housing, tuition fees and jobs.

We must respond to these policy concerns. A revitalised Labour Party must stand for responsibilities as well as rights, community fairness, and a responsive state. And we must never forget the new Labour insight that a radical programme for change and fairness must be credible too. We need passion, but we must be hard-headed – and turn away from any temptation towards romantic self-indulgence.

But our problem was not only about policy. It was not just what we were doing which did not always strike a chord, but how we said it. Modern politics is all about communication. But there is more to communication than sound-bites and suits.

The lesson of this general election is that you have to be clear what you stand for. Most people thought David Cameron was a nice enough man. But when the election campaign came people didn't know what he stood for. It was one of the reasons why he couldn't get enough support to win a majority.

We must use this leadership election to communicate who we are. Our task is to show once again that our Labour values are those of the decent, hard-working majority of people in this country – ordinary people in ordinary towns, on middle and modest incomes who work hard, play by the rules and too often think they get a raw deal.

And it goes without saying that if we see this contest through the prism and outdated labels of Blairites v Brownites, new Labour v old, it will be a disaster for us. Let's not keep trying to define ourselves against ourselves and our past.

But we also have to say what we believe in a way that makes sense not just to pundits and commentators but to the voters beyond the Westminster village.

We need to learn from our successes this year in local government, and in constituencies which stood firm against the Tory tide, like Edgbaston, Oxford East and Gedling, where councillors and MPs have been talking to voters in this way: winning the argument door by door and street by street, proving to people that we listen, that we are on their side and understand their concerns.

That is why I say we must listen before we pronounce; talk the language of the people not the politicians; root what we do not in tactical positioning but in our values; and be a tough and responsible opposition but stay equally focused on a radical and credible programme for government.

I have not rushed to a decision on whether to stand in this contest. Partly because I felt it my duty to talk to my party first. Partly because, like many MPs and party members, I wanted to let the events of the last few weeks sink in and did not think we should be rushed.

But whether I stand or not, and whoever wins, I will back them 100 per cent. It is the great responsibility of this generation to ensure we come out of this stronger and more united and do not fall into old and historic caricatures.

If we stay united, then we can build on the strength our party undoubtedly has, expose this deeply flawed and unprincipled Tory-Liberal collaboration, and win back a Labour majority. I will play my full part to make that happen.

Ed Balls is Labour and Co-operative MP for Morley and Outwood, and Shadow Children and Education Secretary