Let’s not defend our record – it’s been trashed by the voters.

by Dan Hodges

Oh how we laughed at the new socialism. Ed Miliband leaping like Nijinsky to embrace the “audacious reinvention” of his party. A cacophony of explosions: irresponsible capitalism, the financial crash, the illusion of the third way. Our stressed, stretched insecurities soothed by the mellow balm of the good society.

Neal Lawson and John Harris’ New Statesman essay initially bordered on self-parody, then thought “to hell with it” and stormed across the border with a full cavalry division and accompanying regimental band. “Whereas New Labour tried to bend people’s aspirations to their resigned and deflated worldview, the new paradigm seeks to grasp our hopes and fears”.  To summarise, the new socialism involves closing Bluewater, reading the Gruffalo more often to our kids and ensuring that a cleaner in Vladivostock earns the same as one in Clapham. For what it’s worth I’m against the first, for the second and haven’t a clue how to achieve the third.

Comrade Lawson has many qualities, but self-awareness isn’t amongst them. I once laughed out loud when I received an e-mail urging me to purchase his book on the perils of consumerism at a special discount price.

But there is a mob mentality starting to envelope Neal’s adverse critics which does both him and them a disservice. Whatever you think of compass – Lawson’s think tank come campaign group come retreat for social theologians – it is an influential, progressive voice exclusively of his own making. Back in the days when the New Labour inner circle still had an extensive waiting list, Neal Lawson was one of the first with the courage to step outside and say publicly, “there’s something fishy happening in there”. And, like it or not, he’s right when he says that many senior figures inside and outside the party are placing ticks alongside his political wish list.

Where I depart from much of the adverse criticism of Neal’s New Statesman thesis is in its central premise, succinctly summarised by Will Straw as, “you don’t build the future by trashing the past”. Sorry, but trashing our past is precisely what we should be doing.

Maybe trashing isn’t the right word. We should be constructing a Viking longship and piling it high with the remnants of our “legacy” and our “record”. Then we should be setting it aflame and casting it adrift on a timeless journey to Valhalla.

I know this is a heresy. From left, right, Blairite and Brownite, the cry is the same. “If we don’t defend our record, who will”? “We can’t let Cameron and Clegg define the narrative around the deficit and financial crash”.

Too late. They already have. It’s why they’re in Downing Street and we’re not.

We still don’t get it. We are like an alcoholic, always just one drink away from clambering on the wagon. “We must listen”, we say. “We must show we have learnt the lessons”. But then we cannot help ourselves. “We oversaw record investment in schools and hospitals, and the crash, no one else saw it coming, and Barack Obama supports our deficit reduction model and…”.

Enough already. People. Don’t. Want. To. Hear. It.

At least not yet. They made their judgment on our past. It was called the election. What they want is contrition. An acceptance of responsibility. They don’t hate us like they hated the Tories when they were flung from office. Or as much as they will hate the Lib Dems when they finally face their reckoning. But they do want to see that the Labour party is grown-up enough to take its medicine.

What they most definitely don’t want to see is the process of “flash rehabilitation” that Gordon Brown embarked upon this week. Publishing Beyond the Crash, a “manifesto for jobs and justice”, and launching a web site detailing how “for 13 years” he was “part of and then led a new Labour government which changed Britain for the better and for ever”.

History will come to view Gordon as one of the great politicians of his generation. But flourishing a “manifesto” barely seven months after being ejected from office is poor judgment. How can he not see the extent that this diminishes, rather than enhances, his legacy? It is as if Margaret Thatcher’s first act after leaving office were to write a book showcasing the brilliance of the poll tax.

But this is where we are. Defeat denial. If we say we didn’t lose, and we say it long enough and loud enough, perhaps people will start to believe us.

Nor is it just Gordon who has been seduced by this strategy. There are many who use “defending our record” as code for “defending New Labour”. I have sympathy for those worried that the stampede from New Labour risks leaving both the baby and  the bathwater behind. But, carefully though we should tread, move on we must. Tony Blair is gone, and he does not do god. A second coming is not on the cards.

The clamour to “protect our legacy” sounds especially shrill to those around Ed Miliband. “There’s no point in running around shouting ‘don’t trash our record’ “ said one advisor “We got 29% of the vote. It’s already been trashed”.

Their frustration is understandable. Having escaped miraculously unscathed from Labour’s general election car crash, Ed Miliband is bemused to find himself being ushered back towards the flaming wreckage. Those around him stress that they are not advocating a “year zero” approach. But they are adamant that the party must confront the realities of an electoral decline that began as far back as 2001.

Whether this assessment of history is too pessimistic is debatable. But if we don’t need an entirely blank page, we certainly have to begin a new chapter.

Tony Blair’s rebranding of the party in opposition provides a template from which we should learn. Gordon Brown’s success in rebuilding our tattered reputation for economic competence is one we must replicate. But now is not the time to commence a complete redraft of the wider narrative of our time in office.

In fact, the only people who can begin that process are Cameron and Clegg. As the cuts bite, and services people came to take for granted vanish before their eyes, perceptions will start to shift. Perceptions of the Tory-Lib Dem government. Perceptions of its predecessor.

But that will be a slow process. Painfully slow. Such are the realities of opposition.

There are some who realise this. Comrade Lawson is one. We may laugh at them. Denounce them as false prophets. Lend our voice to the chorus of disapproval.

But when the voices fall silent, and we are again alone, where we will we seek our comfort? In nostalgic reminiscence  of triumphs past? The solace of irrelevance?

Ah yes. The good old days. My, how we laughed.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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7 Responses to “Let’s not defend our record – it’s been trashed by the voters.”

  1. John West says:

    Very much agree with this. Lawson and Harris may have frustrated with their rather fluffy essay – not much meat there, for sure – but it was at least an attempt to set sail on a journey to another place.

    As has been said before – it needs saying again – those *in* Labour who fear a leftward turn by Ed Miliband appear not to have the courage of their conviction. They won. The hard left lost. The 2015 manifesto will not advocate leaving the EU or unilateral disarmament. Or nationalisation of the top 25 companies.

    Labour’s record in government was patchy, with soaring highs and bleak, tragic troughs. It is normal that those who pounded the pavements to keep it top dog in parliament are angry at its characterisation in the public’s mind. But two things are important: a) some of the charges do stick; b) even where they don’t, the public doesn’t care anymore. New Labour’s economic record is seen exclusively through the Cameron-Osborne prism.

    Leaving the past behind is essential and Ed Miliband is playing athe long game. He needs to be a more forcefully vocal presence but his strategy is the right one.

    (One last point – I am glad the author has pointed to the electoral decline from 2001. 1997-2005 was bad for vote losses and the win in 2005 on 36% of the vote was a desperate sign of things to come. We must work out who these people are and where they went (HINT – not many transferred to the Tories.))

  2. Chris says:


    Hang on, I’m confused. Weren’t you attacking Ed on this very website for trashing the record during the leadership election.

    “What they most definitely don’t want to see is the process of “flash rehabilitation” that Gordon Brown embarked upon this week.”

    Surely there needs to be some public rehabilitation of Brown? As Steve Richards wrote in the NS.

    “Their frustration is understandable.”

    Your tone is almost conciliatory towards the Ed-ites, is your war over?

  3. Dan Hodges says:


    I think what I pointed out in the election was that it was odd for Ed to trash the record as he was closely tied to it, (and wrote the manifesto). But he did did it successfully, and fair play to him.

    “Your tone is almost conciliatory towards the Ed-ites, is your war over?”.

    I presume you mean my criticism of Ed’s management of the party since his election? Well, I know I’m alone in my analysis. And it’s true that every other political commentator has done nothing but heap praise on him, especially over the past month.

    But if I think he’s doing a good job I’ll write that. And if I don’t, I wont.

    He doesn’t need meed to act as cheerleader when your doing such a fantastic job.


  4. This is to some extent splitting hairs, but it’s the party that’s been trashed more than the record. The two are closely intertwined, but it was the 2010 iteration of Labour that was rejected, not our entire period of government.

    That means we have to accept that much of our recent record (the economy, civil liberties, investment in public services and the like) has been rejected, but older accomplishments like the minimum wage remain popular. Whilst the Tories aren’t going to abolish it and whilst we failed to claim issues like that properly, I don’t think we need to reject the past 13 years utterly. We can defend some things, although generally the much earlier stuff that we’re less well-linked to.

    On the other hand, the 2010 manifesto is a dead letter. There’s no point in defending that.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Fair point but its no good saying “we lost, lets swing to the left” as the public thorughly rejected us in 1983 when we did that

  6. Tim Sewell says:

    John – the electorate rejected a particular iteration of a left-wing Labour party led by a particular set of individuals. Likewise I’m not at all convinced that in 1997 the electorate suddenly became convinced of the need for centrist social democracy. They didn’t buy Labour – they bought Tony Blair.

    In fact you could make the argument that the fall in electoral popularity the party suffered post-97 was a result of not being left-wing enough. There are exponentially more ordinary working people in this country than there are plutocrats, yet the nation saw a cosying up to big business and right wing American governments that they found hard to reconcile with their expectations of what a 3 term Labour administration would achieve in respect of their own lives and aspirations.

    Left wing politics should be all about aspirations – the reasonable aspirations of the vast majority who realise that they’ll never be wealthy but want to make a better life for themselves and their families through common endeavour. What Labour needs to get elected – has always needed – is charismatic leaders who can make that connection for people. What it needs to stay in power is leaders who will turn those aspirations into reality rather than being co-opted by the entrenched vested interests.

  7. john reid says:

    the fall in electoral popularity the party suffered post-97 was a result of not being left-wing enough- fair point but we’d done so well in getting middle england that yes we lost some left wing support but gained more middle england support, although I recaLL at the 2001 eelction some leftwingers stopped supporting us because they felt we were too left wing with the mcpherson report labeling the police institutuionally raciast ,infact had accused all police officers of being racist and the labour leadership had done nothing to correct this accusation the hard left wing had made
    similar every election from 51-74 labour did worse than the previous ones including us getting less votes in 64 when we won than in 59 when we lost or 70 when we lost and getting less votes in feb 74 when we won and the same less in oct 74 when we won overall control ,so the fact that we got less and less over the last 3 elections is a measure of people allways go off us after a while

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