Why on earth is Labour convening a “truth and reconciliation” commission?

by Jonathan Todd

Do we really need the commission that Margaret Beckett is to lead to look “in a forensic way” at the reasons for Labour’s electoral defeat?

Harriet Harman seems to think that a “truth and reconciliation” commission is needed. She used that phrase in her quote in the Observer story and in her media appearances yesterday.

But what don’t we know already?

For years, polling told us that our leader, Ed Miliband, was behind on best prime minister and our party on economics. No party has ever formed a government behind on both these indicators. We were miles behind.

The leadership contenders are not waiting for Beckett’s findings to distance themselves from Miliband. The haste with which they retreat from positions that they recently defended risks inelegance. But it is required and encouraging.

To get out of a hole, you have to stop digging. And the Miliband years dug some massive holes. The collapse of Scottish Labour, the alienation from Labour in the north, and Labour’s failure to win over the south. We are, as Tristram Hunt put it in his lucid Demos speech, “fighting on three fronts. But micro-targeting policy solutions for each will not work”.

1945, 1964, 1997. Labour owned futures that all parts of the UK bought into. At times prior to each of these victories, it seemed Labour would never win again. But we did. And we can again. By re-crafting for our times, the elements that have always characterised Labour victory: unity and optimism grounded on credible economics.

Miliband might have thought that he was deploying these elements. But his spring rally, for example, was a curious cocktail of divisive pessimism and hubristic piety. It was divisive in identifying parts of Britain that deserved cheers and condemned others to boos. Not even those cheered, however, were thought capable of achieving anything under the Tory yoke, which made it bleakly and surreally pessimistic. All would be mended, though, if we only voted Labour. This coated complex problems with hubristic simplicity, taking the electorate for fools, while feigning high principle.

Miliband gave half right answers to the wrong questions. The NHS does face crisis, as he insisted. But he didn’t level with the country that its ageing, rather than supposed Tory privatisation, is the key driver of this. Miliband was correct too that inequality is a pressing challenge. But reading Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee on “the bounty and the spread” of our digital age provides a more compelling account of inequality’s causes than Miliband’s vague and conspiratorial “rigged game” meanderings.

Never mind a rigged game, Miliband wasn’t even playing the right game. He strained for policy detail – even if he never appeared to join up the dots between ageing and the NHS, and technology and inequality. The kind of detail that makes crucial differences in government, where delivery is the game. But which is largely irrelevant to the sending messages game of opposition.

The crucial messages to be sent are that you’ve learned why you are in opposition – i.e. why you lost – and how you’ve consequently changed. Labour, we do not need Beckett’s commission to tell us, is never defeated for being insufficiently Labour. For not caring enough about the NHS. Or not being agitated about inequality. When we send messages about classic Labour themes, no one listens, as no one doubts these things. It is other things that voters think Labour lack, which they don’t associate with Labour.

It is, therefore, only counter intuitive moves that give messages traction. And messages, not policy detail or delivery, are what opposition is about. We need a leader to be counter intuitive early and hard. And to consistently and whole heartedly remain so.

If we do enough things that say, “we are not desperate to spend other people’s money”, slowly people might start trusting us again with their money. If we repeatedly demonstrate our support for business, business leaders and their employees may eventually believe us. If we keep showing our belief that those who can work should do so, people might get round to not seeing us as a soft touch on welfare.

Any interpretation of the 2010 defeat that doesn’t make it painfully obvious that Labour needed to send these messages is inadequate. We must hope that our leadership contenders privately implored Miliband to do so. But he didn’t really try. Because he was playing the policy game of government, not the message sending game of opposition. Because he thought the country was turning left toward him. Because he’d won the Labour leadership by tickling Labour’s tummy and it didn’t fit the character he’d cast for himself to tell that tummy that it had got flabby.

Turning the page on Miliband, as all our contenders have done, is a tiny step toward necessary change. It is also, given the comprehensive nature of defeat, an easy step. Securing this change requires many hard steps: to send messages, which may not sit easily with activists, to voters that Labour needs to form a government; to resist delusions of the electorate’s leftward turn; and, at the right moments and in the right ways, to tell that tummy that it is flabby.

We shouldn’t need the Beckett commission to point us toward these hard steps. It should be obvious. Like the desirability of leadership with the toughness to take these steps and the personality to change what the public think of Labour, through taking these steps.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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15 Responses to “Why on earth is Labour convening a “truth and reconciliation” commission?”

  1. Frederick James says:

    The problem with this inherently inward-looking process is that it might (at best) identify how Labour could have squeaked across the line in 2015. But 2020 will be a completely different kind of contest. What Labour needs to do (but won’t) is to look ahead to where Cameron will have taken the argument by then.

    One reason this won’t happen is because it might have to conclude that Labour as presently constituted won’t be necessary by then; whereas all the candidates, being career politicians, need an outcome that prolongs a lucrative and frankly cushy career for another Parliament or two. Radical solutions will therefore not even be entertained. Burnham inadvertently let this fact slip when he said recently (in terms) that the only thing that matters is [the survival of] the Party. No mention of the Country.

  2. Robert says:

    The Tories are back and when the Tories are on song the people normally vote for them. Labour had three terms in power when the Tories were unelectable, well now it’s labour which is in the same position.

    Time for labour to spend time in opposition wait for the Tories to again mess up.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Frederick James is right,here

  4. Tafia says:

    deluded middle-class nonsense. The reason why Labour lost is simple enough – the tories had a better message and got it across better whole Labour trued to re-fight the 2010 election.

    And if you try to fight 2020 on things relevant in 2015 you will get tossed again. The reforms going through now will make the UK a very very different place by 2020.

  5. Madasafish says:

    I would compare Labour recovery to a human trying to get fit in middle age and keep fit.
    1. It takes time.
    2. Most of the time it hurts.
    3. You have to allocate time EVERY DAY to do it.
    4. When you achieved one thing , you don’t stop doing it. You do it better and better. And do new things so you have a wider range of skills and fitness.
    5. And when you have got a wider range of fitness, you cannot stop.

    After around 2005, Labour stopped getting better. It stopped changing for teh better,. Under Gordon Brown it regressed to its old habits.

    Under Ed , it did go backwards, went all flabby and tried to turn back to the days when it was young and the electorate voted for it in spades.

    Now it’s thinking about getting fit again, and trying something. new. But it’s 10 years older, has gone backwards for that 10 years and the world has changed.

    How long before it gets fit again? At least the 10 wasted years as a minimum.

    Will it be painful? Of course it will. The electorate has changed, and Labour has not. It’s likely to lose a lot of voters whichever way it goes. That will hurt..

    How long to get fit/ credibility? At least another 5 years till people forget it only took three weeks to reverse 5 years of following Ed and slavishly saying he was great. And now he’s rubbish.. Says more about the quality of the candidates for Leader than it does about Ed.

    Oh most people who are indolent and middle aged need a personal tutor to help them. Someone who can persuade them to endure the pain. Tony Blair was one.. I don’t see any such person in the Leadership stakes.. but I may be wrong (as usual!)

  6. Mike says:

    Glad Margaret Beckett has been chosen, she is a great MP and isn`t an extremist. Labour could do a lot worse than get her back into leadership.

  7. Yes Jonathan, quite right, who needs a forensic study of why Labour lost. I mean why worry about the disaster in Scotland, or the leakage of working class votes in the North and Midlands to UKIP? Why worry that we couldn’t gain any of the Southern marginals? No let’s bury our heads in the sand and pretend that Douglas Alexander’s ‘limited offer’ was just fine and dandy. Who needs real data, eh?

    All we have to remember is that it’s time for the ‘Modernisers’ with their back to the future 1997 ideas. I must get in at least one ‘aspiration’ here, and maybe a ‘business friendly’ as well. There we go. Job done!

  8. Colin Stone says:

    The trouble with Labour is that the party was formed to represent the workers in early 20th C.
    The Unions still want and fund that party as a left wing party. They detest any move to the centre.
    UK workforce has changed in a century and old fashioned union power is almost an irrelevance.
    If the Unions still want that sort of party, then Labour as we know it won’t get elected.
    Instead the modern Labour party is the Lib Dems.

  9. John P Reid says:

    Danny sleight, surely the modernizer were the ones who’ve pointed out over the last 3 weeks, that Ed Miliband took the Labour Party back to the 80’s ,so any calls to be more like 1997′ would seem futuristic, compared to what Ed Miliband did,
    As for quoting cliches ,you forgot to put in the New labour lost 5 million votes, line, that the left normally turf out,

  10. Michael Worcs says:

    It isn’t Socialism to support a life on benefits, throwing away children’s future with debt and indigestible levels of immigration.

    Gordon Brown and his acolytes have allowed the Conservatives to steal the mantel of the party of work. Having taken this honour they will not relinquish it to Labour easily.

  11. Forlornehope says:

    The trouble is that Cameron is deadly serious about making the Tories “The Party for Working People”. Why? Not because he is a nice guy but because that is what will get them elected time and time again until they screw up mightily, remember the ERM, or self-destruct when John Major’s “bastards” start playing up again. A Labour party that presents itself as a slightly more left alternative, without frightening the middle classes, might just get back to power when that happens. And, it will happen as night follows day.

  12. John Baxendale says:

    It is naive to suggest that giving our inadequate business class whatever they want – low taxation, deregulation, reduced employment rights – is the way forward for either the party or the country. They need sorting out, not mollycoddling. What is needed is a robust interventionist industrial policy from politicians who don’t flutter their eyes and go weak at the knees at the very mention of ‘business’.

  13. Ex labour says:


    “Slightly more left”…you’re surely not serious. If you are then labour are out of 2020 and beyond.

    The public has just told Labour that “left” is not wanted.

  14. Dave Roberts. says:

    This proposed exercise is about as useful as the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission that Giles Fraser pocketed two grand for chairing. As Michael Caine would say ” Talk about stating the bleeding obvious”. Labour lost because they were seen as the party that favoured immigrants and ethnic minorities over British people.

    Their campaign on immigration was seen as too late and opportunistic. Miliband was never seen as a Prime Minister even by his own troops and I got that from party full timers.

    No amount of blaming bankers shifted the responsibility from Labour for years of debt and overspending especially when the economy is starting to recover.

    All this talk of the failure to present a left programme would be derisory if it were not so serious. We now have Dianne Abbot seriously touted as a left wing alternative in London to the Tories!

    There is more bad news on the horizon as far as London Labour are concerned. Have a look at http://www.obv.org and read the article by Lee Jasper, yes you did read that name correctly, advocating the packing of London Labour Party membership with ethnic minorities signed up at Mosques and black churches. Look at the pictures at the top and just imagine what the Tories are going to do with this one.

    Labour and especially Lammy, Abbott and Khan have got to disassociate themselves from this one and quickly because if it gets any traction Zac Goldsmith is going to do with a Tory majority in London what he did in his constituency. I absolutely despair of the state Labour is in and what it is doing to itself.

  15. Henrik says:

    @Dave Roberts: http://www.obv.org.uk is the correct URL

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