Peter Hain: Labour must now reconnect with modern Britain

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Labour needs first to recognise how badly we lost, and by that I don't just mean the election result on May 6th: under the circumstances it could have been a lot worse. We need to recognise how badly we lost touch with modern Britain, we need to understand why 5 million people who voted Labour in 1997 progressively lost faith in us and why they gave up on us - most of them, by the way, by the 2005 election.

Although Britain didn't want a Tory Government on 6th May, they damn sure didn't want a Labour one either. Acknowledging the problem is the first step on the long road to recovery.

During our last years in Government, it was as if we'd forgotten why we were there. We'd become the establishment. We'd stopped transforming the country. We were now merely managers of the system. We were managing the economic crisis and the global terrorist threat - pretty well, most fair minded people would concede. But only Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho would get elected for being good managers.

What we did succeed in doing, against all the odds, was depriving the Tories of their majority, and we can take some satisfaction from that. Though unbeknown to us in the immediate aftermath, we inadvertently caused what could be a fundamental realignment of British politics which presents both big dangers for Labour, but also opportunities.

It's now becoming clearer by the day that the Coalition Government isn't just a marriage of convenience. The Liberal Democrat conference showed that, as delegates jettisoned their principles and lapped up being in power.

There is a much bigger agenda at play here: this is a radical right wing Government determined to tear up the welfare state, out-source and downsize government, and restructure British politics by gerrymandering constituency boundaries in time for the next election.

Labour's default position must not be any early coalition implosion. Liberal Democrat leaders (and increasingly, as we saw at their conference, their members) are working on the assumption that it would be suicide to go for an early poll. They are praying that their savage cuts programme will produce economic upturn by 2015, regardless of the pain meanwhile. So they are absolutely determined, come what may, to stay in power until 2015.

Although we must lead the resistance to their right wing agenda, and look for any opportunity to defeat the Government, either in Parliament, or by mobilising public opinion, we must also focus relentlessly on policies that will matter for 2015. Simply indulging in Con-Dem bashing is not sufficient. We won't set ourselves up to win the next election unless we present ourselves as the party with serious answers.

It would be all too easy simply to take the populist route of opposing all cuts to public spending. That might win us some seats back in by-elections - remember, we were winning by-elections in the Thatcher years too, but we the lost general elections. We cannot be seen merely as a repository of protest votes. We have to be a serious party of government with a serious alternative agenda.

Neither should we assume that the key issue of 2015 will be a choice between Tory and Lib Dem cuts on the one hand, and Labour expansion in public spending on the other. We can and should combine the best of public service reform - focusing on delivering the best for service users - while questioning if the way we deliver, and the pattern of delivery, is right.

That's very different from the Coalition's ideological war against public services. In fact, it is the very opposite: asking how can we get the very best out of provision we collectively pay for. But it also recognises that the kamikaze economics of the Coalition will have a lasting impact on the ability of the UK economy to pay for wide scale public service investment.

And above all, our programme for 2015 will have to be one for the long term. In reality it is likely that five years of coalition damage will take ten years for Labour to repair.

Meanwhile, there is much work to be done at every level of the Party.

Locally, we must defeat Tory and Lib Dem Councillors to undermine their base, demoralising their membership as we did to the Tories in 1980-90s and they both did to us these last five to ten years.

In Wales and Scotland next year, we must fight to win by showing we are serious about public service reform within restricted budgets. We need to present a vision for the future of a high tech, high investment, high skill economy, in stark contrast to the Coalition managing the decline of Britain. Labour need to be bold and ambitious, if we want our country to be a hi-tech manufacturing centre and we should be prepared to take some very radical steps to make that happen.

Meanwhile we should also stand shoulder to shoulder with local communities, with trade unionists, with faith groups, with charities, with voluntary organisations, to lead a great people's movement for change against this right wing government.

The greatest challenge yet for our movement is to achieve what New Labour could not: re-occupying the political centre ground and appealing to the millions of lost Labour voters in our heartlands. I am confident that under Ed's leadership - we can do just that.

Peter Hain is Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and Labour MP for Neath