by Simon Danczuk
‘Time is running out to save the NHS’. This was the polling-day message thrust through thousands of letterboxes early in the morning by an army of Labour volunteers.
Every Labour MP and member should find one of these leaflets and keep it in a drawer. Forget the Ed stone, these are the real monuments to Labour’s defeat.
It’s a simple rule of politics that the party that wins is the party that owns the future. That’s why Bill Clinton chose Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” as his campaign song.
People want a government that can sell them a vision of a better tomorrow and map out how to get there. The fact that Labour went into the final day relying a scare story about the NHS shows how far we were from offering that positive vision.
Those leaflets are a window into the comfort zone where Labour has been firmly camped for the last five years. For all the seminars and lectures, re-launches and re-brands, we ended up basically where we started; opposing ‘Tory cuts’ and warning of the doom to come if David Cameron was elected.
This is essentially the same message we were pushing in 2010. It’s an argument that warms the hearts of Labour activists, but leaves the public cold.
The truth is that despite the deep thinking and introspection, Ed Miliband’s leadership was unwilling to engage in any of the real intellectual heavy lifting necessary after the 2010 defeat. On the economy, public services, welfare and immigration Labour didn’t challenge the received wisdom within its own rank and file.
As a result we found ourselves on the wrong side of too many of Lynton Crosby’s famous ‘dividing lines’. Whether it was an EU referendum, the welfare cap or English Votes for English Laws, Labour too often seemed to be caught defending an unsustainable status quo. We allowed ourselves to be painted as the resistant establishment rather than the radical reformers.
Welfare is perhaps the best example of this. I was raised on benefits and will always defend the safety net that is vital for so many people in this country. But by 2010 everyone could see that something was wrong with the welfare system. Too many people trapped on benefits for years, a claimant culture developing on some estates and a deep sense of injustice felt by the working poor.
For me, addressing this problem is one of the main reasons I came into politics and joined the Labour party. I am a firm believer in the transformative power of work. I’ve seen it change people’s lives and am convinced Labour could have built a powerful policy platform around a welfare reform programme that protects the vulnerable but also encourages, rewards and champions work.
We could have showed fiscal realism by addressing universalism and demonstrated our credentials as the party of work by restoring the contributory principle. It would have been a bold and popular offer that would have challenged perceptions of Labour as the party of welfare.
Instead our main policy on welfare was that we opposed the bedroom tax. This is not a bad thing in itself, but it is another example of a message aimed squarely at the base rather than the public. It confirms perceptions and convinces nobody. Instead of offering reform based on Labour values, we seemed to be the half-hearted defenders of an unpopular status quo.
If we are going to come anywhere close to winning in 2020 then we have to leave the comfort zone pretty quickly. Coasting on cruise control doesn’t help anyone; we’ve got to go to where John Cruddas calls our ‘dark places’.
The Labour party needs to be challenged on its love of centralisation, its reliance on high taxation and its disconnect from business. Most of all, we need to do some serious soul-searching about why the party is so reluctant to even discuss the cultural and emotional issues affecting traditional working class communities. Whether it is on welfare, immigration, family or national identity, we need to understand how we have lost a cultural connection with many of our core supporters and how we can re-establish it.
All of this requires a leader who has the courage to take on the big arguments and the determination to win them. We need someone at the head of the party who is not tied to the past but can drag the party kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This is what should be the driving concern of party members in the months ahead.
If we have five more years in the comfort zone then there is a real risk of the Labour party becoming a complete irrelevance in British politics. Because the path of least resistance can often lead to a place of great indifference. We have no divine right to win elections and if we are unable to challenge ourselves and think creatively then quite frankly we don’t deserve to.
Forget the NHS, time is running out to save the Labour party.
Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale