Hopi Sen: Labour has no future if it refuses to confront the ghosts of its past

Gordon Brown’s premiership was a failure of such enormous proportions that Labour will not win again until it understands what went so terribly wrong

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Labour's party conference starts today and the current leadership will be looking determinedly forward.

Conference is going to be about reform. It's going to be about ripping up the rulebook while taking on vested interests. It's going to be about the squeezed middle, the British promise and the new generation, about Blue Labour, Purple Labour and Red Labour. We want desperately, to look forward. Yet, though he'll barely be mentioned, the ghost of Gordon Brown's past will hang over Liverpool. Not talking about Gordon is a fatal error because Brown's premiership was a failure of such enormous proportions and devastating consequence that the Labour Party will not win a general election again until it understands what went so terribly, terribly wrong.

Of course, the past year has been full of accounts and memoirs of the Brown years, each more distressing than the last to loyalists. No wonder we don't want to hear more. Yet the more that is published about Brown's lack of social skills, the less Labour debates a much bigger and bleaker failure altogether – the collapse of the idea that drove Gordon Brown's domination of Labour economic policy.

Why did the party stick with a leader when he was unpopular with both the country and his Chancellor? Because Brown was the architect of using economic growth and cheap money to fund increased public spending without imposing heavy increases in personal taxation. The strategy worked brilliantly for a decade. Back in 2007, Gordon Brown could have chucked his mobile phone all the way down Whitehall and I wouldn't have cared less, and neither would the rest of the party. What mattered was that he was the source of Labour munificence and fiscal competence.

That's why, in my role as the most junior of party bag-carriers, I supported Tony Blair strongly as leader, but felt that if anyone should succeed him, Gordon Brown was the natural, overwhelming choice. When Tony Blair eventually resigned, I offered my little all help to Gordon Brown's campaign team, and for a couple of weeks lugged penguin stands emblazoned with "Gordon Brown for Britain" to schools and leisure centres. When Brown's team celebrated his victory, I was the one who went to Sainsbury's in Victoria Street to buy special offer Cava. Prudence with a purpose personified. Later, as Brown's premiership decayed, I argued we had no better options and should keep him in place. So when Gordon Brown failed as Prime Minister, it was my fault as much as anyone's.

To say now that Brown was a catastrophic failure in No 10 seems almost banal, but before the failure, all of us in Labour – Blairite, Brownite or Bennite – chose to depend on his "proceeds of growth" to make our political agendas attractive. Whatever ambitions we had, whether ending child poverty, increasing NHS funding, building academies or holding down the basic rate of tax, Brown was the man we relied on to deliver the funding without scaring the voters. That's why he dominated Labour's economic policy for two decades; it wasn't because he got angry in meetings.

Yes, there were rows about choice and about public service reform. But those who wanted to reform needed money to make their reforms work better or – less nobly – to buy off opposition. So no matter how irritated senior Labour people got with Brown, the economy meant he was our essential man. Until there was no more money. At that point, Brown's purpose and popularity collapsed and the whole New Labour project imploded.

The Gordon Brown premiership ended in failure. But it was not a failure of one man. Even if Brown had not possessed a volcanic temper and an unusual management style, the bleak political and economic reality that confronted Labour after the crash would not have altered one bit. Ultimately, Brown's failure was the death of a vision of how the Labour Party could succeed in an environment apparently hostile to traditional social democracy.

That failure is a direct inheritance from the failures of Wilson, Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock. Confronted by fears of economic decay, Labour has rarely found an electorally appealing answer. Seen this way, the last Labour government was merely the end of a journey that began with the 1970s crisis of confidence of post-war social democracy. At the 2010 election we found once more that if we had little to spend, we had just as little to offer. But when Gordon Brown failed so terribly, his conception of a Labour Party delivering social democratic aims by modern methods had failed with him. New Labour as a project was kept afloat by a tide of cash. Now the flow is the other way, and we seem to want to talk about anything but that.

Labour has been out of power for a year, and Ed Miliband faces the problem that has tormented Labour leaders for nearly 50 years and to which Gordon Brown had no answer. What is the Labour Party for if it can't promise to spend more money? It's a question that is even more pertinent in the renewed economic crisis. If Ed Balls wins the argument that we need to encourage demand now, when the economy rebounds we will still need to pay down a big debt. Plan B may be essential, but a return to growth will only ease eventual fiscal consolidation, not remove the need for it. Worse, if George Osborne sticks to his plans but fails either to grow the economy or cut the structural deficit significantly, that just means an even harder task falls to the next government. Either way, our plans for the future will involve a programme of more taxes and less spending when the economy is growing. This is hardly an attractive left-of-centre position, but when stable deficit reduction becomes necessary, surely it's our duty to get the finances into the black in a way that matches left-wing aims. It would be stupid to pretend a fiscal path back to black won't hurt. To cut the deficit and invest in industrial growth, we'd need a public restraint that would be painful for many. That pain might still be worthwhile if we could use fiscal stability to generate a better spread of jobs and wealth. Alternatively, we could embrace the argument of the left for more taxes and more spending both now and later, an argument that is intellectually coherent, but which I think is wrong for the economy, and certainly won't work politically.

Whatever we decide, we need to have an argument about the past, because the worst choice would be to struggle through, hoping clever tactics and the mistakes of our opponents will bail us out. That didn't work for Gordon, and it won't work now.

This article is adapted from the essay 'We Need to Talk about Gordon' published in 'Renewal', a journal of social democracy

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