The theme of this issue is ‘Big Ideas’, and this edition of Look Left is full of them. But as our recent guest speaker Dan Hodges reminded us, the biggest idea of all isn’t a policy, but something much more elemental. It’s an idea which can unfortunately seem all too foreign to the Labour Party and which we have a mixed history on; we need to be a party whose primary aim right now is to win elections.
Obviously, it’s not quite as simple as that; but it is the first step to getting back to power and being able to implement all the ideas this issue shows we have no shortage of. It’s also something which sounds deceptively easy; of course we all want to win elections, right? Everybody wants to win elections; even the Liberal Democrats allegedly want to win elections, however much they may act as though that’s not the case.
But of course, we know that’s not true. There are lots of people within the Labour Party who don’t want to win an election- or rather, to be fair, they want to win an election, but they don’t think that it’s our main goal. Or they think it’ll just happen if we focus on other things. Our main goal, they say, should be to defend people’s living standards, or to defend the NHS, or to prevent Tory cuts from hitting the most vulnerable. And of course all of those are at the heart of who we are- but none of them can be accomplished until we win an election.
The hard truth is that there is nothing that we can do in Opposition. Contrary to what some have said, we can’t ‘frame’ the debate; governments and circumstances frame debates. Oppositions take advantage of them. Ed handled the hacking crisis brilliantly- but it was not because he drove the narrative or ‘framed’ the debate. The Guardian did that; what Ed did was seize the opportunity. And the reality is that this is the best that any Opposition can hope to accomplish. Ultimately, there are only two ways we can do anything outside Government: we can work to ensure a future Labour government will be elected to accomplish our aims, and we can fight in local councils and regional assemblies to do the best we can- both of which require elections to be won.
The problem is; really wanting to win an election is hard. We only need to look at the past to see that. After our previous periods in government, in 1951 and in 1979, we just waited for government to drop back into our laps again; we didn’t work to modernise, to change ourselves, or to really understand what the electorate wanted. And both times, of course, we deluded ourselves into believing that what the electorate did want was the same as what the party grass-roots wanted, that the centre-ground had been shifted leftwards- a mistake that it seems all too possible that we will repeat in 2012.
We won an election in 1997 after we had become so utterly sick of irrelevance- and that is what Opposition is- that nothing could prevent us from changing. It was not just at the leadership level that this was true but across the party; from Scotland to Kent, we were determined to finally put ourselves back in Number 10, where we belong. And in doing so, we finally did what all the voters who supported us through the dark days of the 1980s had put their faith in us to do.
When we do not commit ourselves 100% to winning the next election, it isn’t us who suffers. Yes, it’s true that if we lose in 2015, then every person in this Club will be about thirty years old the next time we win an election. That is a long time to be irrelevant. But more importantly, think of what will happen to the country after it has had a Tory government for that long- and think above all of the poorest and most vulnerable, those we claim to represent. If we truly believe that we are the best party to help those people, then we have a moral duty to them to leave no stone unturned in our effort to win the next election and return to a position where we can do so.
The Labour Party has had seventeen Leaders in its history, not counting temporary leaders; of them, exactly three have won majorities in a General Election. One has won more than one full term. We cannot afford to let this pattern continue- and more importantly, the people who we represent cannot afford it. To indulge ourselves in the selfishness of righteously indignant Opposition is a betrayal of ordinary people across our country. We have done it far too much before; we cannot do it again.
That is why the single most important big idea we can adopt in Opposition is also the most obvious and perhaps the hardest one of all; we must make it our all-consuming aim to win the next election. Then, and only then, can the real work of helping Britain, and implementing all our other big ideas, finally begin.