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Joan Smith: Labour was simply wedded to the wrong man

Sunday 16 May 2010 00:00 BST

It's a weird business, going into opposition. I heard David Miliband talking about his mother on the radio last week, and he's never sounded more human – but then he doesn't have to worry any longer about how Gordon Brown might react. There's been a perceptible lifting of spirits since the great clunking fist (and the rest of him) left Downing Street. The Labour Party has emerged from the elections with a creditable share of the national vote, control of half a dozen big councils, a woman as acting leader – shame on the Lib-Con coalition for its unappealing maleness – and an opportunity to come up with fresh ideas.

After 13 years in government, politicians get tired and defensive. Like any party, Labour has had some really bad ideas and the longer it was in power, the nearer it got to foisting them upon us. I'm not sorry to say goodbye to ID cards or a third runway at Heathrow, while the Nick-Dave coalition – this smirking creature I have begun to think of as the Clemeron – is going to legislate to bring in fixed-term parliaments and an elected House of Lords, measures Labour should have introduced a long time ago. I don't think anyone should underestimate the depressing effect Brown had on party morale, and that isn't a state of mind that's conducive to innovative thinking; having the wrong leader is a bit like being married to the wrong man, constantly having to make excuses and never quite getting up the courage to divorce him.

One of the reasons Labour got into this situation was a belief that internal elections are destructive, a hangover from the days when Denis Healey and Tony Benn squared up to each other and almost tore the party apart – and that was only a contest for the deputy leadership. But it doesn't have to be like that, and I'm confident that a less macho, more intuitive generation of Labour politicians will be able to stand against each other without the kind of rancour we saw in the past. There hasn't been an election for the top job since Tony Blair defeated John Prescott and Margaret Beckett in 1994, and 16 years is a very long time for a democratic party to keep its members waiting for an opportunity to have a say. Last time round, Brown was the ghost at the feast, bottling out of challenging Blair – he would have lost – and lumbering the party with an undemocratic transfer of power when his arch-rival stood down in 2007.

That's all in the past, and I see no reason why the leadership contest shouldn't be courteous, civilised and even invigorating. It's clear that there is a progressive, centre-left majority in this country, and the Lib Dems will have to make such big compromises in government that it will fall to Labour to articulate its aspirations. The party held its core vote 10 days ago – canvassing in Labour's South Yorkshire heartlands during the election campaign, I saw no evidence of a Lib Dem surge – but to win power again it has to appeal to a broader constituency.

Labour's working-class supporters want social justice, which means a commitment to provide social housing, training and jobs, but the party also has to speak to a middle class that in recent years found itself to the left of Labour on issues such as civil liberties and faith schools. The party urgently needs to ditch its reactionary baggage, not least the charade it imposed on parents who had to pretend to religious affiliations to get their children into good schools, and affirm its commitment to a politics that draws on its best instincts. That means secular, European, egalitarian, environmentally aware – and intellectually confident under a new, democratically elected leader.

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