Peter Hain: Gordon, you are without a narrative

Unless the Prime Minister can develop a 'compelling prospectus', Labour is destined to lose next time round

Related Topics

Will the next election be a moment when the whole paradigm in British politics shifts as it has done every 30 years or so? And if so, can Labour still win?

It's only weeks away from the 30th anniversary of the last such moment when, in May 1979, Britain turned its back on the post-1945 welfare state consensus, and opted for Margaret Thatcher's free-market mantra and a much-reduced role for government.

After three subsequent defeats, New Labour judged it had to go with the grain of that new consensus to win in 1997. But the global financial crisis means the next election could make a decisive break with that consensus, as the public opts for a new settlement where government intervention and regulation to protect its citizensare dominant.

That's what happened with Barack Obama's victory. US voters turned their backs on right-wing Reaganism and Bushism which had held sway since 1980, and which Bill Clinton's new Democrats had to tack toward to win. America wanted active government. Obama caught a big tide of cyclical change, whereas Labour has to represent that change as the incumbent – tough after the ups and many downs of 13 years in power.

Yet the opportunity is still there, because Cameron's Tories do not actually offer the progressive change which Obama represents. To the extent that they stand for anything at all, it is for less government intervention, public investment cuts and even more reliance on free-market forces.

Despite Cameron representing himself as "change", he actually stands for more of the very same policies which got the world into its current mess: deregulation and smaller government, leaving citizens to fend for themselves in economic blizzards.

His is a blueprint for a "hollowed-out state" with cuts in public spending and contracted-out services reflecting the Tories' enduring hostility to government. He has sought to camouflage this by speaking of "capitalism with a conscience". But while he may not be planning a 30th anniversary waltz, he is still dancing to a Thatcherite tune on fiscal policy with his relentless attacks on higher government borrowing – exactly what Thatcher did in the Tories' 1981 budget. Then, rejecting Keynes, they responded to recession not by stimulating the economy, but by cutting government borrowing by fully 2 per cent of GDP, producing three million unemployment and devastation to many areas.

Cameron's rejection of the lesson of Keynesian economics – that recessions are best fought by governments using fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate spending and borrowing more in the process – has left the Tories in splendid isolation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies assessed that this do-nothing option would lead to even higher government borrowing.

However, in, say, a 2010 election, Labour will find no appetite among those on low and middle incomes to pay higher taxes; indeed, there is a case for tax cuts if they can be funded. Nor will there be support for the public sector inefficiency and wasteful bureaucracy which saw its nemesis in 1979. Voters want value for money. They are willing to pay for public services but only if they are high quality and citizen-serving, not bloated and self-serving. Equally, the Old Labour reliance on state bureaucracy has had its day.

So, if the tide of political paradigm shift is with Labour, can the party catch it? The latest polls make this extremely difficult. But the Tories still do not have the kind of consistently commanding lead to be sure of victory. Furthermore, writing off the Liberal Democrats is not sensible; I believe they will get at least 20 per cent. To win, Labour must be seen as the credible force for change. That means changing itself – and there is not much time left. Although a return to "Old Labour" would be disastrous for the party, it needs to move on from New Labour as well. The best of New Labour needs to stay, including its recognition that business and competition are not automatic enemies but potential allies in the mission for social justice. We must also retain a broad appeal to Middle Britain, including those many voters Tony Blair won over in 1997.

But equally, there is no escaping that New Labour has lost five million voters, and not simply because of longevity in power. On basic core vote issues of affordable housing, job security, employment rights, crime and migration, Labour has to do much better and much more. The same is true of progressive issues: human rights, the environment, international policy and respect for the public service ethos.

Despite Gordon Brown's best efforts, Labour has not had a clear enough narrative right across government. Ministers have developed a habit of making technocratic speeches where the very purpose of Labour gets lost. On TV and radio, some now sound more like managers than politicians.

Whatever their individual policy merits, identity cards, Trident, nuclear power, Royal Mail part-privatisation and Heathrow's third runway do not add up to a programme to get the pulse of potential Labour voters racing. They may each reflect the hard politics of very difficult choices that credible, serious government for the long term always requires – and where Cameron's hypocritical posturing just demonstrates how unfit for power he is. But where is the story in all that; where is the distinctive Labour narrative; where are the Labour values of social justice and freedom?

Above all, Labour must be ready with a much more compelling prospectus for progressive government that covers our plans both for overcoming the current financial crisis and for using the power of the state and international co-operation to build a better society.

A fourth-term Labour government needs to be active and enabling, rather than centralising and controlling. It needs to empower individual citizens and local communities to take control of the decisions which affect their own lives through a much more radical approach to devolution of power and budgets.

House of Lords reform must be completed and the alternative vote introduced for a fairer electoral system. There should be more investment in job-creating infrastructure: affordable housing, public transport, new micro-generation and renewable energy.

The economic crisis should be a reason to redouble efforts to end child poverty and improve employment rights rather than retreat from these. As Barack Obama has said, there is no false choice between our safety and our ideals, and hard-won individual freedoms should be respected and protected.

Perhaps above all, Labour must remember how starkly the Stern report demonstrated not just the huge environmental threats from climate change, but the costly economic ones too. Instead of lagging behind, Labour must take the lead on the green agenda.

Such a vision of a progressive Labour government protecting people will starkly contrast with the Tory vision of a "limited state", of government downsizing and turning its back on the people it is supposed to serve. The choice will then be between a government that is on your side rather than one that says you are on your own.

If Labour can do that, I think Gordon Brown can confound the dismal polls and still win.

Former cabinet minister Peter Hain is MP for Neath

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page


In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine