Our new leader will need to move quickly to define our narrative, says Peter Watt

Whatever people once thought, Labour must be rueing the decision to allow the leadership contest to drag on.  This window has allowed the Con/Lib government to to create a sense of moral outrage about Labour’s so called ‘profligacy in government’.  They’ve tricked us in to thinking that cuts of up to 40% in departmental budgets aren’t savage – and to do anything else would be irresponsible at best and probably immoral to boot. 

Eric Pickles reinforced this last week with his decision to open up the DCLG books.  Eric, who must surely be seen as having one of the strongest performances of any cabinet member so far, has pulled a master stroke.  How credible does it look for Labour to challenge the government on spending when it allowed tax payers pounds to be spent on massages, trips to the races and swanky hotels? 

Over the coming months, journalists and armchair auditors will be poring over the lists of payments and drip-feeding a diet of ‘excessive spending’.  It doesn’t matter what the reality is, the perception will be as the public suspected; spending had got out of control.  The mood of the day is that although it might be painful, it needs doing. 

The Con/Lib government is to be praised for putting aside tribal differences and working together in difficult circumstances for the common good.  They didn’t create the problem, so the story goes, but it has fallen to them to sort it out.  Of course there are differences between the two parties – even more reason to give them the benefit of the doubt that despite this they are making their alliance work. 

At the same time, the prolonged leadership contest has forced the Labour party to look in on itself and feel comfortable with a shared and familiar diet of ‘same old Tories’, ‘no to cuts’ and ‘Lib Dem sell-out’.  It is in fact hard to simply argue that a legislative programme that includes an effective extension of Labour’s school academies program, proposals for an elected House of Lords, greater transparency in governmental funding decisions and a referendum on AV is simply the product of those ‘same old Tories’.  Indeed they are trying, and thus far succeeding, in powerfully defining the centre ground as their own. 

Those lone voices of reason like Alistair Darling who have tried to put the case for the defence have been drowned out by the inevitable honeymoon afforded to a new government, and obscured by the incoherence that comes from an opposition busy fighting a four month contest. 

This leaves the new Labour leader, elected on September 25, with some major strategic problems in determining how to respond. Not least of which is how does Labour define itself once again as the champion of the poor, and the party of aspiration and radicalism?   Labour’s last few years in government felt more ‘caretaker’ than radical, an  uncomfortable reality that the party must address. 

The new leader will need to quickly move to a position where they are defining a uniquely Labour narrative for an election to be fought in 2015.  It won’t be easy.  The temptation to fight every cut and to condemn the ‘heartless ConDems’ will be strong.  When the government introduces legislation to limit the size of donations to political parties, the temptation will be to oppose and ‘defend the link.’ Labour will be fighting back and the troops may well rally – but the public?  The danger for Labour is that to the public we will continue to look and sound old and irrelevant as we merely continue to fight tribal battles of old. 

The new leader must prepare for an election which takes place after the cuts have happened, when even if there is a double-dip recession – the dip will be over.  Party funding will be reformed for better or worse, the NHS reorganised and schools ‘freed’.  The sky will not have fallen in, and whilst the government’s honeymoon will be over, we should not expect victory by default.  Let’s not forget that Margaret Thatcher won successive elections against a backdrop of unemployment and cuts.

Our opposition must therefore be smart, articulating what the right balance is between state and citizen.  We can’t just fight our big state against their small state because they will rightly win. 

We will need to have a response to the big society.  Allowing people more control of their lives, more of their money and greater involvement in how their services are delivered are Labour agendas.  Local mutualism, more responsive local schools and residents feeling that they can make a difference in their area are Labour agendas.  So we can’t just dismiss the big society as being nonsense.

And of course we need to begin to define how a Britain lead by a Labour government would be different to the alternative.  It will not be easy, but as Harriet Harman said in response to the Queen’s speech:

 “We will be an effective opposition. We will not oppose for the sake of it. That’s not what the public wants.  But, we will not pull our punches. Though we are in opposition, we will be powerful in the public interest.” 

The new leader should take note. 

Peter Watt was General Secretary of the Labour party.

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3 Responses to “Our new leader will need to move quickly to define our narrative, says Peter Watt”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Kindred, Labour Uncut. Labour Uncut said: Our new leader will have to move quickly to define our narrative, says Peter Watt http://bit.ly/d4DzZF […]

  2. demonax says:

    Amidst all this could the new leader read about socialism- well a little- and not bow down immediately to the filthy rich?

  3. james says:

    They are the same old Tories in the sense that they represent the same old interests of the wealthy few against those of the great many people on modest and middle incomes.

    Peter, you forget that Thatcher could at least implement policies – such as the sale of council houses – which won people over, which built a base of power. It is not possible to do that now.

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