I hope Ed Miliband enjoyed his summer holiday. He certainly shouldn’t have been short of reading material – it feels like pretty much every paid-up member of the Labour Party has put pen to paper to tell him where he’s going wrong and how he needs to up his game.
In particular, this advice from Alastair Campbell caught my eye. Whatever you think of Alastair’s approach to managing the media, as one of the key people behind New Labour’s three successive election victories (alongside Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and the late Philip Gould) his abilities as a political strategist are beyond question. Except on this occasion his advice sucks.
Before we come on to the big mistake, it’s worth noting in passing that like many on the Left he misunderstands the attack he is seeking to rebut. Sensible Tories don’t claim that the last recession was all Labour’s fault. In today’s globalised economy, what happens in the economies of our major trading partners has a profound impact on our economy: Labour was no more to blame for international economic conditions in 2008 than the Coalition is to blame for conditions in the eurozone and elsewhere during this Parliament.
Nor do we take major issue with the Brown Government’s response to the crisis. Our criticisms of Labour’s economic record are much more about what went on before the crisis – the tax changes that did such damage to our pension system; the decision to sell off much of our gold reserves at the bottom of the market; the way in which the extra money Labour rightly put into our public services wasn’t coupled with radical reform and hence much of it was wasted; the splitting of responsibility for regulating the City which, while it didn’t cause the crash, almost certainly contributed to its severity; and most of all the decision to run a deficit at the height of the boom, which meant that when the Government did need to spend more and was getting fewer tax receipts during the recession we ended up with the record deficit we are trying to deal with now.
But the key point is this: it doesn’t matter what Alastair or I think of the record of the last Labour Government; what matters – in terms of the political strategy that Labour should now adopt – is what the British people think. And poll after poll shows they’ve made up their minds. If they agreed with Alastair that Labour had “a very good record” it is safe to assume that they would have got significantly more than 29 per cent of the vote and not suffered the worst result in their history in terms of seats lost. Trying to change people’s minds three or four years later would be both futile – while he’s at it, Alastair might like to try persuading people that the Winter of Discontent wasn’t Labour’s fault or that the Attlee Government hadn’t run out of steam in 1951 – and counter-productive because it would show that Labour didn’t understand why people voted it out and it would waste time that Labour could spend trying to convince people that it has the answers to today’s problems.
Alastair will hate the comparison but he reminds me of the Major-era ministers who used to argue during the 1997-2001 Parliament that we needed to defend the record of the previous Conservative government from Labour attacks. They were more concerned about defending their legacy than on how the Conservative Party needed to change to win again.
The following is a quote from a chapter by Andrew Cooper, now the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy, in a pamphlet called A Blue Tomorrow published in the wake of our 2001 drubbing in which Alastair played a crucial part:
“Throughout the last Parliament the Conservative Party continued to behave, for the most part, as if its violent defeat in 1997 had been nothing more than a fleeting setback – a passing fancy on the part of an electorate a bit bored with us and, egged on by a biased media, somewhat dazzled by the superficial sparkle of Mr Blair. We simply refused to let go of the past – more often than not falling guilelessly for Labour’s efforts to goad us into defending the Major Government”.
Substitute “Labour” for “Conservative”, “2010” for “1997”, “Mr Cameron” for “Mr Blair” and “Blair/Brown” for “Major” and this is the strategy Ed Miliband is following and which Alastair is now urging him to ramp up.
Being in opposition is hard, doubly so for those who have experienced the excitement of government. You have to analyse the criticisms your opponents made of your record, publicly accept those that in hindsight are fair and resist the temptation to continually rebut unfair criticisms safe in the knowledge that David Cameron is no more going to convince the electorate that everything the last Labour Government did was a mistake than Alastair is going to convince people the overall record was “very good”. In short, you have to stop arguing about the past and start focusing on today’s problems.
This article originally appeared on The Telegraph website on Thursday 15th August 2013