Labour, the natural party of opposition

by Dave Talbot

Right on cue, exactly six months into David Cameron’s premiership, the ancient British roar of “Tory scum” reverberated through Whitehall’s hallowed halls. In honour of the coalition’s deal on higher tuition fees, protesters spilled through Westminster’s streets to rediscover their hatred of the Tories once more. After almost 13 years of opposition and apathy, the Tories could once again hold their heads high – hated again. It was back to politics as usual. Labour prime ministers for the past 13 years were anomalies, you understand, and not to be repeated. No sir, the Conservatives are back.

That is a charicature, but the masked point is a serious one. The Conservatives are quite suited to power. Indeed, from 1911 to the present day, the Conservatives managed to keep Labour out of office for all but 33 of those years. Never underestimate the Conservatives and their desire for power – nor their capacity to acquire and hold it. They believe in their divine right to rule. When Cameron, Osborne and Co. state that grand old maxim of British politics -that the Conservatives are here to clear up after the misfortune of Labour government – they truly mean it. They unapologetically look at politics through the prism of power.

It seemed for a time as if an inconclusive election might see Britain’s new prime minister fall at the final fence. But ideology could not be allowed to obstruct his party’s historic duty to hold office. So he tore up the rules and embarked on the first peacetime coalition since the 1930s, ensuring that the Tories returned from their longest period in political exile since the split over the Corn Laws during the 1840s.
In politics, these are breathtakingly admirable qualities to have. Whereas the British left does not understand the character of power. The politicians at the top of the Labour party would not act against Gordon Brown, long foreseen as the brooding, vision-free prime minister that he became and, devastatingly, an electoral liability. A year after a defeat of historic proportions, the Labour party has settled into its niche; it hasn’t descended into recrimination, as it did in the 1950s between the Gaitskellites and Bevanites, nor veered wildly to the left as it did after 1979. It has become quiescent and comfortable in the role that, truth be told, it really rather likes; the natural party of opposition.

New Labour had one central overriding principle, to sustain itself in power. This was an anathema to many on the left, so used to the purity of opposition.  It is astonishing that the new Labour leader won by breaking with the party’s serial winner (whisper his name, Tony Blair), rather than with Gordon Brown, who took the party to its worst defeat since 1918. The British public could almost be forgiven for thinking that the Labour party wants to fall forever short, so that it can continue, in a torrent of military metaphors, the struggle against Tories and their cuts.

All this plays in to the narrative that the Conservatives are the masters of British politics. They wear our insults as badges of pride; ruthless, arrogant, calculating and many more beside all reinforce characteristics that Labour does not possess. Conservatives don’t care if they aren’t liked, they want to win elections rather than flounder in the barrenness of opposition. The left’s signature characteristics are all too often moral indignation and political failure. Being in our element means being in opposition.

If there were a general election tomorrow, Cameron would win. Labour remains unforgiven, blamed for everything, its faces still too redolent of a rejected Brown era. Twenty-three policy reviews under the aegis of the technocratic Liam Byrne are hardly an inspiring prospect. We can have our marches and rail against the cuts, but marching itself is an act of self-expression for a movement that prizes purity over politics. The best traits of New Labour shouldn’t be a whispered shame. It won three successive elections. New Labour’s relentless and ruthless pursuit of power was the defining characteristic of British politics in the last decade of the twentieth and the first portion of the twenty first century. The Tories feared us. But to suggest now that Cameron fears Ed Miliband is laughable.

Even after 13 years of opposition and wallowing in crisis, the Conservatives still see themselves as the natural party of government in a way that Labour never has. Cameron is not seeking just to bury Ed Miliband; he’s seeking to eradicate an entire political project, the New Labour political project that turned Labour from being a natural party of opposition to being a forceful party of government. We have got to show him that we are up for that fight.

David Talbot is a political consultant.

Tags: ,

9 Responses to “Labour, the natural party of opposition”

  1. Skeptic says:

    Solutions then?

  2. iain ker says:

    The best traits of New Labour shouldn’t be a whispered shame. It won three successive elections.


    Always this. Always Blair/ New Labour/ Sundry PR bunnies won three elections. Says it all really.

    Q. What did New Labour achieve?

    A. Oh we won three elections.

    Q. How did that benefit the people of the UK exactly?

    A. Oh, don’t be silly now, we’re not here to benefit the people of the UK, we’re just here to get re-elected.

  3. CS Clark says:

    ‘It won three successive elections.’

    On an increasingly lower share of a lower turnout, having turned safe Labour seats into marginals and put entire swathes of people off every voting again. Talk about your actual denial – could you really not see what was coming? Blairism was to winning elections as consumer debt was to an economy.

  4. Merseymike says:

    New Labour was a blip. It existed purely because of the untimely death of John Smith and the uselessness if the Tories from 1997-2003. It is now dead and buried and Labour is in opposition. If we are to regain power then it will have to be as Labour, not as some sort of idea-free ‘modernisation’ glee club based on spin and lies. Of course that fills the Bliarite fellow travellers with horror : so to make it easier for all of us, how about they just join Cameron as they clearly like and admire him so much.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Labour hasn’t swung towards the left like it did in 1979, but it’s satterd to trash it’s record in power like it did in 79, We’ve had labour oppose the Anominity for suspected rapists, saying that not naming someone who is still innocent ill proven guilty is labelling anyone who makes the accusation of rape a “liar”, Katy clark has come out wiuth her ban riot police comments without explaining how police are then supposed to control public order situations, Sadiq kahn has come out with similar cirticisms of the police nd Ed has compared teh march 25 anti cuts protesters to those who suffered under the Holocuast or those who suffered similar during South Africa’s apartied. Reofunding laobur doens’t make sense, and Ed milibnad was elelcted on a Laobur lost the 2010 election as it wasn’t left wing enough platform,
    Laobur has gone out of it’s way to disasoicate itself from private donations and rely on union donations as Ed has said he may want to change the strike laws, And wants to keep the 50 upper rate of tax, Look who’s joined labour in the last year, Sunny hundal Owen Jones, Laurie penny

    We’ve got Ken callig Obama a mobster and using trotskyite ways to get Luftur back in the party and like militant before him Livingstone was backing an independent cnadidate agasint teh labour one, as his choice wasn’t seleected for laobur, the Hope not hate lies agisnt english defence league, and their supprt form muslim extremists, who are agianst democracy ,are similar to Livingstone Inviting Sinn fein I/R/A to county hall 30 years ago

  6. David Talbot says:


    Solutions? Rediscover our will to win. Tories would step over their own grandmother to win an election whilst Labour would probably set up a standing committee. We’re not ruthless or radical enough, and haven’t been for some time.


    The Winter Fuel Allowance, shortest NHS waiting times in history, crime down by a third, SureStart, devolution, civil partnerships, peace in Northern Ireland, half a million children out of poverty, maternity pay, paternity leave, the minimum wage – to name but a few. Stop being a troll and start engaging in the debate.


    But Cameron has modeled himself on Labour, not the other way around. It is to the great compliment of New Labour and all that they achieved in the political reconfiguration of Britain that successive Conservative leaders could not dare to win under their all-too-triumphant past right wing banner.

  7. Merseymike says:

    So we’ve actually started sounding like a Labour party again rather than a pale copy of the Tories? And quite right that those people have rejoined the party – now how about those who are Not Labour thinking about whether they have a future given many joined purely for careerist reasons?

  8. John P Reid says:

    merseymike, those who are not labour thinking about whether they have a future given many joined for careerist reasons? do you want those who picked labour up in 87 swung and fought tooth and nail to swing it to the centre ground and got us back in with the blip of losing in 92, and governed for 13 years, youthinmk they should consider thir place in the party, it was hyardly a career move joining labbour in 87, union bosses said we woul’dnt win in thir lifetimes again,

  9. AmberStar says:

    The Coalition government is afraid of itself. There is no confident execise of power. There are u-turns & policy pauses & cabinet policy being reversed by Cameron’s office every time Cameron gets a kicking from Ed M at PMQs.

    Osborne is conspicuous by his absence; he went into hiding in the last few weeks of the election campaign & rarely raises his head above the parapet. Treasury is running the economy whilst Osborne presides over the laughable project Merlin then goes off to Switzerland to ski. He is afraid of Ed Balls, no question.

    It’s time we stopped calling Conservatives the nasty party. Timid Tories would be much more appropriate…. & they’d hate it.

Leave a Reply